When writers ask me for one piece of advice I always say the same thing: tell the truth.
Write a lot. Read a lot. Talk to everyone and ask about their story but know when to shut up and listen. Don’t delete anything and don’t be scared. Jot down notes on anything to hand. But for god’s sake, more than all of the above, learn to tell the truth.
You hear a lot about it, this truth-telling, this search for authenticity – especially when people start yapping on about the ‘creative process’, which is simply the wanky conceptual cousin of truth-telling. Before you can speak your truth you have to find it, which is also known as ‘finding yourself’ – the siren call to Generation Gap Year to flock to Fiji and Thailand just in case their authentic selves had washed up there. Truth isn’t waiting to be found; the truth is looking at its watch and stirring tea whilst it waits for you to grow a pair and expose it.
This is how to tell the truth as a writer.
Write what happened, not a re-enactment of events in a way that you think makes sense. Life is weird and it doesn’t make sense, so write it as you see it.
Write what you felt, not a socially palatable affectation.
If you’re a girl who met a girl and instantly disliked her, say so. Girls are allowed to dislike each other, the feministas won’t come for you in your sleep. Not all of them, anyway. If you were bored during sex, say so; if you transmogrified into an animal during sex, say that. If you stood at the top of the water slide and felt terror in your marrow then don’t say you felt scared – that’s the easy way out, and it isn’t the truth. and it’s really fucking boring.
Write people as you find them. Don’t dumb them down, smarten them up or paint them according to your own desires.
Don’t lie because you think it will be more imaginative than the truth – lies tend to be half-baked, hackneyed, rooted in thin air and tinged with hysteria. That's not enjoyable to read.
Don't lie because you regret your choices and you think you’ll feel better if you make others regret theirs (you won’t). Don’t lie to make people like you. If you want to be loved, buy a dog.
Don't lie to get commissioned. It will end in bad writing or a bad relationship with an editor. Both are miserable.
You only understand a small part of the truth, which is precisely why you should write about it. To write is to explore the unknown of your experience: therein lies the jeopardy and the suspense. Hold up a red umbrella and ask your reader to follow you into the dark.
Don’t tell your reader what you have already worked out in therapy. People are smart and if they have spent money on your book, don’t hand them old rope.
Don’t lie to be funny. The funniest jokes are distilled from authentic experience and sharing in another person's laughter is the sum total of empathy.
Whilst we’re on the subject, please learn to empathise before you write a word. If you are sure you know how to empathise, you don’t. If you can empathise, you can still do it better. We can all be better friends, children and lovers and we can all afford to listen in silence without conceiving a riposte as our friend/child/lover talks.
You know why we lie? It is because we are too scared to tell the truth.
We are too frightened of the consequences, intended or otherwise, that come with being truthful. (An addendum: most consequences can be negated with a bit of forward planning.) And so we are liars and cowards.
Lies are an overcoat worn to protect us but coats are not failsafe. They do not have any remarkable powers. They gape. They can be unbuttoned. If it gets too hot you’ll be forced to take it off and reveal everything. A coat cannot change who you are.
We lie because telling the truth can be difficult. Good. It should be hard. You are not special: everyone finds it hard to tell the truth.
Sometimes we lie because we are scared that someone will shout at us. If they do, explain, calmly, that this is your version of the truth and, y’know, write your own fucking book.
Let your characters lie for you because there is truth in that, too.
Dine out on the truths of others. Learn to spot who is lying and when they not. When you get good, you will be able to feel the shift.
Don’t abuse other people’s truth, by the way. Being truthful makes you vulnerable – be sensitive to that.
Buck the trend. We live in a curious age where lots and lots and lots of people do not tell the truth so do not be one of them. If you are starting to feel like everyone else, turn on your heel and run hard the other way. Truth has become a precious commodity so be responsible with it.
It’s not brave to write 1,500 words on your fractured relationship with your mother. It’s not brave to admit you have sexual fantasies about everyone/anything except your partner. It’s interesting – it is really interesting, and if it’s very candid, that makes it important too – but it’s not brave. Let’s reserve that word for the people who get their fingernails pulled out for daring to share objective truths on Twitter.
A joke from The Simpsons: lawyer Lionel Hutz (now working as a real estate agent) explains to Marge (also now working as a real estate agent, obviously) how to sell houses.
“There’s the truth,” he says darkly, frowning and shaking his head, “and THE TRUTH!” This time he is grinning with eyes wide and nodding profusely.
Advice from my friend Maya: there are three versions of the truth: their truth, your truth and the facts.
A lot of people won’t give a flying fuck about your truth. Tell it anyway.
And yes, truth can be rotten. It can spill out of you like vomit or soak you like bin juice or disgust you like squashed dog shit on a hot day. But here’s the thing: truth is only toxic when it is held inside. Truth ferments. It is the concealment of the truth, not the truth itself, that turns the very thing rancid.
Tell the truth because you are a writer, and that is your job. (If you write at 6am in the morning before you go to work or on the tube in between meetings or in your head at the gym or last thing before you go to sleep then writing is your part-time job). You will alienate and annoy your readers if you are averse to the very heart of things. We connect through vulnerability, not bravado or thoughtful syntax.
It should hurt a little to say the truth out loud.
Tell the truth then wait for 7, seventy, seventeen thousand readers to raise a bashful hand in solidarity. Sometimes they stand up and yell me too! in your face. Mostly they just tweet you.
Now picture the quiet ones who keep a dog-eared copy of your book under their bed wherever in the world they sleep. These are the readers who appreciate your truth the most and will never, ever tell you.
Advice from my friend Sam: when things are bad, telling the truth won’t make them worse. (An addendum: tell the truth because you want to, not because you have to.)
So tell the truth even if only because it is the only option left. Be known as a truth teller so that the refrain at your funeral is: “He/she was always honest.” Make honesty an integral part of who you are and how you write. Bad writing can be brought back from the brink by an injection of truth straight into the neck.
I bet you are not a bad writer, though. At worst, I suspect you are writer who is still building up the courage to set your truth free.
Bring us your worst.