On Writers, Egos and Truth

Foster underpass by Jason Pettus
Foster underpass by Jason Pettus
The writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.                   
                                               – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
 

I was thinking about two things on my bike ride down to Logan Square. Well, three. One was a feeling, really: how blissful it felt to be pedaling by the river, music ablaze in my ears, sunshine ablaze on my shoulder blades. Two was contemplating this odd task I’ve taken on of writing about myself – spending hour upon hour thinking about my life, traveling through my past. I was puzzling over why I feel driven to write about myself in this way. Are writers, specifically memoirists, monologuists, poets who draw on their personal experience, everyone who writes about themselves, are we all raging egomaniacs? The third thing I was thinking about was truth. Because when I think about why I write about myself, my life, it comes down to wanting to tell the truth. And I wondered what makes the truth so important.

I put the egomaniac question to Roger, with whom I’ve been meeting to share work and critique. We sat at a bar; I had a beer and a Cuban sandwich (which blessedly involved both plantains and pickles) while the sweat cooled on my skin.

“Are writers in love with themselves?” I asked.

“No more than accountants or lawyers,” Roger said.

“Or professional athletes,” I suggested.

“Let’s take athletes,” said Roger. “It takes a certain amount of ego to put yourself out there. Strikers, for example, you don’t think they’re egomaniacs?”

(I’ll look up strikers when I get home, I thought. I figure they’re the ones who make the goals.)

“It takes a certain amount of ego to get out there and do what they do. It’s necessary,” said Roger. “That’s why they’re the most flamboyant.”

“Okay, but the difference between me and a striker,” I began.

“I like the start of this sentence,” said Roger.

“The difference,” I said, “Is that I’m in my head all day. All those hours that they’re out running and kicking and –” I waved my hands in the air. “Doing the other soccer things they do, I spend those hours in my head thinking about my life and what stories are in it and why those stories might be interesting to anyone else and isn’t that being so much more obsessed with myself than a striker?”

“That’s a false dichotomy,” Roger said. “What’s the difference, really? It’s the Western, white, mind-body thing. Running and kicking is a different kind of intelligence, a different way of thinking.”sandwich

We didn’t get to the question of truth. We had work before us. But our chat about ego gave me an idea about truth: that it’s the counterpoint to narcissism. Maybe you need a certain amount of ego to put yourself out there in the first place — I think it’s fair to say Hemingway (see epigraph above) had a healthy ego on him — but writing the truest sentence isn’t about ego. It’s about the pursuit of something authentic, something real. A true moment holds power. I mean, I truly do not know from sports. (I felt like a cultural anthropologist when the Blackhawks were on while I was bartending this week.) But even I can feel the zing of the moment when hours of drills and what Roger called the intelligence of the body and maybe some chance, too, coalesce into a physical feat that is breathtaking and wondrous. I could hear that in the bar, even while pouring shots and ringing in sales at the register – the collective intake of breath, joyous whoop of the crowd. So, here’s how I’m like a striker: We both tell the truth in our way — when the ball rockets past the goalie, when I find the words that hit the mark.

As a kid I was very concerned with truth. Perhaps this was a result of growing up in a family full of secrets; possibly it was a consequence of being raised Catholic, a religion that engendered the practice of mental reservation. In mental reservation you make a statement that is technically factual, but you reserve part of the truth, leave it unsaid, thereby leaving your sentence open to misinterpretation. It’s a workaround. (That’s the thing about rules, they spur people to dream up creative ways to break them.) But in a way, mental reservation is a fact of life. You can never tell the whole truth and nothing but. There’s always something left unsaid. When I write, I get as close as I can.

Good writing does not equivocate. A writer bears witness. “This is how it was. This is what I saw and felt.” I was in a fourth grade classroom this spring. Most of the students did not want to write. They wanted to throw pencils, they wanted to call each other names, they wanted to get on the computer and play video games. Early on we did an activity investigating sensory detail. We’d talked about the five senses and read a poem. When it was their turn to write, I asked them to think about the blocks they lived on and to describe a detail for each sense. Kaivon threw down his pencil. It rolled off his desk and onto the floor.

“I don’t want to do this,” he said. “It’s boring.”

“Okay,” I said, “Let’s see if we can think of one idea. Tell me about where you stay. What do you feel like starting with? See, hear, smell, taste or touch?”

“I hear people shooting.” He looked at me. I handed him the pencil.

“Write that,” I said.

“I can say that?”

“If that’s what you hear,” I told him. “What does it sound like to you?”

“Like a pop pop pop,” he said, “Like fireworks.”

“I like that description,” I said. “Write it down.” He did. And he kept writing.

It’s a revelation for some of my students that they can write what’s on their minds, even the stuff that doesn’t seem beautiful or smart or like what they think adults want to hear. I try to open up that space for their voices; I try to keep my expectations out of it, to let there be surprises for both of us. That can make the difference between a kid for whom writing is really hard emotional and physical work not being willing to try and that kid actually being invested enough to put pencil to paper. Being allowed to tell the truth.

I grew up in a suburb of joggers and manicured lawns. Where moms in the church parking lot made polite inquiries about bake sales and softball games and whether we’d found that dress at Bloomingdale’s. I wondered constantly about what was left unsaid. Telling the truth depends upon a willingness to scrutinize not prized by dysfunctional families and not generally embraced by our culture at large. We buy our meat at Safeway and our clothes at the Gap. We don’t see the slaughterhouse or the sweatshop; mostly we don’t want to see. The willingness to look, to bear witness to what is frightening and wonderful, what is unjust, what it is to be afraid, to be petulant, hypocritical, compassionate, in love, what it is to be alive on this planet, that is a radical act. Natalie Goldberg says we must love the details – our task is to say a “holy yes” to our lives as they exist. Good writing demands a willingness to look and listen. A willingness to contemplate all of it. It makes for writing that reaches uncannily across time and space, that makes us catch our breath in recognition. It makes for writing that blazes with truth.

Maybe we’re willing to forgive the huge egos that sometimes come along with talent, because the truth they show us knocks our socks off. The athlete’s body twisting midair (“Seeming suspended,” Roger said, “Though we know it can’t possibly be.”), the poem or story or play that raises the hairs at the nape of our neck, elicits laughter or tears or just the ah! of recognition. Truth connects us, it tears down pretense, it opens fault lines beneath institutions and assumptions about what’s possible and real. It can change the shape of things. That’s why it matters to me.

soccer goal

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102 thoughts on “On Writers, Egos and Truth

  1. Maia,

    I had a few thoughts after reading your post. I was wondering whether you think that writing about yourself always implies an element of truth? I think for a lot of people, talking, writing, expressing themselves is accompanied with deception and falsehood – an opportunity to shield the world from a person’s true self, much like living in the suburbs?

    I could not agree more with your belief that in a sense, the truth can set your free, that the “truth connects us, tears down pretense”, but I have to wonder how one can find the truth when it is so often masked by insecurity, insensitivity, and an inability to look beyond the surface of our protected and “manicured” reality.

    I apologize if this has been completely tangential. I have enjoyed this post thoroughly.

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    1. Blake, I absolutely agree that writing about oneself doesn’t require truthfulness. Obviously there are lots of examples to the contrary. And I guess deception is not always apparent at first glance is it?

      I found another quotation while I was working on this essay, from Anaïs Nin: “There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.” I think that we can uncover truth even when it’s veiled or not easy to discern. It takes intention and a willingness to see beyond first impressions. And as Nin writes, we don’t typically see it all at once.

      Thanks so much for your comments. Glad you liked the post!

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    2. Hm, Maia, I’m thinking back to your post on memory and how our brain (without any prompting from its owner) manipulates as it reconstructs.

      What are the implications of this on a essayist striving for truth? Aren’t we always prioritizing and reframing information to re-present our experience in a more coherent way — just as we edit our Facebook page or our online dating profile to reflect a more attractive self?

      I’m not suggesting that truth is impossible here. I just wonder how much control we really have over it, and especially when the subject is something we care so much about: ourselves.

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      1. I think that’s such a good point, Jacob, and so interesting because if our ego is wrapped up in our identity, that’s truth really serving ego, right, because we carry with us the version of truth that supports the identity we want to project. But that’s why I think it’s also necessary to try to be clear and open and willing to see the parts of the truth that may not flatter or bolster us as much as we’d like, and I think when a reader or audience member experiences those moments where the artist is making an honest, brave effort to get at something real, they feel it and it resonates. (Also I think there’s a difference — for some — between an online dating profile or FB page and an essay or other work of art that reveals the self. I think we all know that in the former, only the best, most attractive self is being put forward, where in the latter, we hope to get to see something genuine and human.)

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  2. Really well written and condensed out of that conversation. i love that you also had to google all thos players and find the right shot from the right one to include. 🙂

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  3. I write a lot of horror stories, so I don’t know if anything in that can be considered truthful. But maybe it’s in the observations of my characters of their lives is where the truth shines through. Maybe.
    By the way, love what you did for that kid Kaivon. Not a lot of kids like writing, preferring to escape into a fantasy such as that of video games. Showing that Kaivon could connect the gunshots that scare him to his writing assignment, and even make it cathartic for him, may have given him a priceless gift he will cherish forever.

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    1. I certainly think there can be truth in made up stories — just as you say, in the characters, dialogue, description, etc. Thanks for your comment!

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  4. “It’s a revelation for some of my students that they can write what’s on their minds, even the stuff that doesn’t seem beautiful or smart or like what they think adults want to hear. I try to open up that space for their voices; I try to keep my expectations out of it, to let there be surprises for both of us.”
    What a lovely teaching attitude.

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  5. This activates a favorite quote I picked up in college: “It ain’t braggin’ if you really done it.” An athlete, a baseball player, Dizzy Dean, said it. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I guess that’s par for the course.

    But I never really bought into the whole Ego Is Bad thing. I never understood it. Why the hell wouldn’t somebody be proud of what they experienced? Who came up with the balls-backward idea that we are only allowed to crow about our suffering and not our success?

    Why do women get together over clinking glasses of Chardonnay and compare emotional wounds from the past month? Why is it never a cheering party for each woman’s wins? How come men hold a slide ruler up to their careers that measures a direct ratio of mental and physical distress to income? “Yep, I cleared six figures this month but I put in 80 a week and I know more about my cardiologist’s kids than my own.” Who came up with that point system? That’s effed up.

    I catch myself omitting the best moments of my life from the ears of friends because when they hear how fantastic those moments are, they invariably want to hear how I came by them. The truth is that those shining jewels were effortless and I did nothing but bask in the loveliness of life to “earn” them. (The word earn implies you’re not worthy yet and that’s crapola.) Humans don’t aspire to be gods, they only need to remember where they left their lightning bolts.

    It’s okay to be happy and successful. Really. If people disagree, get some new people. Clink, clink.

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    1. I agree. I crow about my big and little triumphs to my friends and fully expect them to do the same. In this case, however, I was thinking of ego not so much as pride in one’s accomplishments but as an obsession with oneself.

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  6. Maia, I would read your memoirs. This piece moved me very deeply. My mother told me once to “write what you know” and that is exactly what it sounds like you’re advocating.

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  7. @ Truth connects us, it tears down pretense, it opens fault lines beneath institutions and assumptions about what’s possible and real. It can change the shape of things. That’s why it matters to me….>>>There in a nutshell you’ve nailed why many of us write about our personal experiences..The connection..The need to connect to others with REALness..And the only way I can write is to pen from actual experiences I’ve lived & lived through & loved through..I was asked , just today! , by a producer/writer, how I would describe my style of writing? My rapidly answered response was…Real, so very real, because keeping it real is all I know how to do. ..I so enjoyed your write! Made me reflect on the many reasons why I feel most comfy expressing myself writing and especially with my poetry..I look forward to reading more of you. 2 thumbs UP & round of applause!

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  8. They’re learned things I think about a lot- bearing witness & holding space. Wish I’d learned them sooner & if there’s an easier way.

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  9. Beautifully written, I was drawn to your writing style. I agree with you, writers are egotistic in the way that they are simpy sharing their own thoughts and beliefs, but for some it is the way they can freely express themselves. Perhaps they are introverted and cannot articulate the their thoughts properly.

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  10. It takes an interesting mix of ego and humility to write great non-fiction. memoir or journalism. You have to have enough self-confidence to believe you have a story worth telling to thousands, possibly millions of paying strangers (really, me, why?) yet the crucial humility to know you will also need an editor or several. You may have to be willing to revise your copy many times. You may have to shelve entire chapters, or projects. Then you need enough ego strength to start the whole cycle again.

    I write for a living, (NYT, books, etc.) and know this challenge intimately, as do you. The most important and powerful stories are not the ones sent out to us by press release. They take digging and persistence and courage to find and tell. That, too, requires some ego.

    Writers willing to take the risks and lead the way also do something really essential to the culture — they inspire others to do it as well.

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  11. Having been raised Catholic in the suburbs of Chicago myself, I felt there was an unbelievable amount of truth here. I believe there’s a certain quality of your average creative person that trends toward thinking that we are alone, or at least that there are few who think the way we do, value what we value. I think in my case, (and yours too, it seems) that feeling was only heightened by living in the suburbs. There’s so much about suburban life that is mechanical, so many things that people only do because they want to create an image of themselves in someone else’s mind. And creative outlets, in our case writing, allow us to get past that mask that society compels us to wear and get at the truth. Wonderful article, Maia, I really loved it.

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  12. Love this, “The willingness to look, to bear witness to what is frightening and wonderful, what is unjust, what it is to be afraid, to be petulant, hypocritical, compassionate, in love, what it is to be alive on this planet, that is a radical act.”
    Authenticity, yes! Perhaps the quest for self leads to authenticity which in turn leads to others, which we finally can see and hear when we are authentic ourselves.

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  13. I think what you are getting at here is that the truth in writing doesn’t always mean “telling the literal truth” but representing the abstraction of what is “true.” I like this idea because even if students are writing about things that haven’t happened to them, or which they are just making up completely, the good writing is that which is flushed out with details, contains emotion (or no emotion for a purpose), and explains something about life and reality without having to literally write, “I put this character here to represent the idea of being a victim…” etc.

    Kudos on writing for a job. 🙂

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  14. Great post, thank you for sharing so much with us all. It caught my eye in one your comment replies that you mentioned Anais Nin. I think more than any other writer, she was able to dig deep into her emotions and bare her soul like an open wound. My writing here on WordPress has been strictly observation-based humor but I’ve been privately working on a memoir for quite some time. It is different beast to say the least. Truthfulness is a fine line to walk when writing about yourself. You expose your vulnerability and your weaknesses. As frightening as that can be though, I’ve learned a lot about myself by writing about myself. Things that I’d seemingly chosen not to even think about have come out on paper.

    Wonderful example about the students writing. There is a great book called The Artist’s Way that helps people overcome creative blocks in their life. We are encouraged to write Morning Pages as soon as we wake up. This is simply free-form writing about absolutely anything. It is nothing meant to be read by others. It’s an exercise to free your mind of the Censor we have inside ourselves by simply writing.

    Anyway, fantastic post, Thank you.

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  15. Mia – thank you for your insight! I too like to write about true experiences. As I am currently finishing up with my memoir, I admit, I sometimes have had to walk away from writing about some of my memories, take a breather and then return to the writing. Although away from my manuscript, my thoughts weren’t much farther away than the next new sentence, scene, or sequence. Then I thought, Oh God, please don’t let me be so self-absorbed! But now I see that this isn’t all that bad. Us writers are indeed similar to athletes, builders, painters, designers, etc., out there and merely want to perfect our craft. And since I don’t write fiction, I try my best to convey the truth (flaws and all) on those blank pages to something I remember.

    Again, this was a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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  16. If writers are egomaniacs, then all other artists would be as well? Because don’t we all want to put our art out into the world, don’t we all want to be seen in some important way? I believe that when I write, or share my pictures, I give my perspective, my experience, my perception to others so they can respond in whatever way they need to, either seeing themselves mirrored, echoed, understood or understanding themselves better because they need to distance themselves, to differentiate themselves in some way from what I have presented…. So, to me, it’s a communication that has to begin somewhere (i.e. with my work or that of another artist’s) but then there is a dialectical exchange with the audience that has the potential to enrich both parties. I seriously doubt that that would qualify as egomania (self-obsession to the exclusion of others, often involving devaluation of others and placing oneself at a higher level of importance).

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  17. I’ve always been scared of writing too but have found comfort in it once I have. Words come to my thoughts but when they have to be penned, they flee from me. Your writing is inspirational and the aspect of truth is liberating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and hearty wishes on being freshly pressed.
    ps – i loved the exercise you made the kid do to enable him to write.

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  18. I have to say in truth, we are all egotistical. Life is about us, and we are willing to share with those who relate to it. As writers, you influence the world with your experience. As a writer myself, I always find myself in a rut when I’m not able to express the truth. And the truth is easy to write, but then we think, “Are people ready for our truths?”. All in all your post was a amazing, it sparked a thought within me!

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  19. I love this post! Very inspiring and honest. Writing does not require truthfulness, but when an author has written truthfully, whether opinionated or factual, it is always an inspiring read. Tha k you for such a great post!

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  20. I think you are right. Writing is about truth. I’m not a writer yet now, in a moment in my life where I want very much to tell the truth about myself and to know that truth, I can’t stop writing. But yet, despite many efforts, I have yet to write a sentence that feels completely true. Hopefully soon.

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  21. I’d say but what is truth?or can there be ‘a truth’?or are there many truths(yours and mine)?writing surely is not truth..they probably are thoughts expressed in some abstract way which other humans understand.So,are truths different for different living beings on the planet?Though without a doubt writing is something profound,something beyond mind-matter dichotomy.

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  22. “Are writers in love with themselves?” – I’m of the opinion that it’s quite the opposite. Artists of any form express themselves because they need to be heard or felt or understood. There’s a general sense of “aloneness.” I think there’s a subtle mix of narcissism in there. But it sometimes feels like a cry for attention.

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  23. Truth is remarkably difficult to find. Some part of all truth is subjective, and part objective. What I love about great art, in whatever form , is that truth always appears on its own terms. So if we are being partially truthful, it will be apparent. And not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes fictionalising a universal value can arrive at its truth more accessibly than recounting a factual event. As Keats wrote ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty. ” You can never fake it. For long. Great article.

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  24. I usually find myself not writing just because I thought I will just feed myself with ego. But that’s one thing everyone should overcome, I think. No one can speak the truth unless one is bold or a little egomanic enough to tell them. Maybe, it’s the way how we speak that will make us egomaniac in a negative way.

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  25. Awesome post! There are several things you’ve presented that I need to make sure I go back through and jot down for future reflection when I’m trying to put a piece of writing together. Thank you!

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  26. I read your piece and thought about it. It made me do that. I remember reading somewhere that a good writer should write about what he knows. Yet, the greatest Western writer, Louis L’Amour (he wrote Hondo) never went west of the Mississippi River and yet researched the west and wrote about it. I also know that J. R. R. Tolkien never visited Middle Earth. So write what you will. Sincerely, Barry

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  27. “[Truth] can change the shape of things.” I enjoy a piece with insight. I also like permission to have a little ego. Admittedly, I like being the center of attention, but I also think my experiences–if I’m vulnerable and truthful in describing them–can change the shape of things for someone else. Back to that memoir.

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  28. That’s a very beautiful, well-written and thought provoking post, you have a talent for the truth there! Nice work!

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  29. I don’t see how scoring a goal is any kind of truth; to get the ball past the goalie he has had to deceive him, to make him dive the wrong way or feint past the goalie’s charge. Scoring is deception, not truth. But then, I come from the school that says that writers are supposed to ask questions, writing is supposed to challenge your readers perceptions, show them the world as they have never seen it before. There might be some truth in that, but it is only a version of the truth, a simulacrum, a view through a new lense on your camera. Phillip Pulman described a story as a line connecting a number of events together; my view is that a writer is simply asking the question: how are these events connected? and in his tale he is exploring just one potential possibility. I don’t see any truth in this, and don’t understand how truth can exist outside an axiomatic system.

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  30. I read your part on “as a kid I believed in truth.” It spurred me on to write my blog of the day. I would hope you read it. It is titled, “To Be or Not to Be.” I lied to become a teacher and I was always confused on how I should feel about it. Let me know what you think?

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  31. Honesty is the arrow that always finds the bulls eye. Our minds instinctively know what is true, and we may write on the ‘edges’ of the target, but our hearts remind us that the center of the target should be our focus.

    Nothing short of a bulls eye will do. On the other hand, many of us write when we have nothing to say. It is difficult to edit our own work. I can easily erase what YOU have said, but God forbid I remove a word from MY work…

    Yes, truth is the sole antidote for error.

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  32. A brilliant thought provoking piece. I think essentially we are all wrapped up in ourselves because we to some extent are created that way – that is why it is so incredible when we are prepared to face the truth we generally prefer to ignore – amazing things begin to happen…

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  33. I hope everyone thinks about themselves mostly, but I hope they they think about themselves in the context of the world, their town, their family and that they truly see others for themselves and not just as useful or decorative. As long as you are thinking about others, like strikers, and finding another’s view point exciting, then you are doing more than just thinking about yourself.

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  34. Salutations! I have only just begun an experiment where I try to home in on good storytelling by blending imagination and fact. Is this impossible? Thanks for this post, lovely read.

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  35. I want to be a student of yours. Since signing up in WP years back, I find myself struggling to voice out what I feel. I have a poetry blog (littlefurrow.wordpress.com) which has been on cyber sleep for so long, and I blamed it all to my unstable muse. Truth in poetry tends to hide behind a curtain of rainbow.

    A stimulant in a sedated mind. That’s what I need :/

    Thank you 🙂

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  36. Reblogged this on A blog of all sorts from a writer and commented:
    I read this today while looking through my reader and trying to catch up on my reading.
    Some very interesting insights and analogies, but do Writers tell the truth, or do we weave a web of exagerations around the truth, and in essence actually decieve by indulging?
    Somethig to think about I guess

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  37. I have reblogged this, (http://lmsteel1.wordpress.com/) I found it really quite thought provoking. I think we write about truth, or at least truthfully, but it hide it or wrap it up in a deception so we don’t fully expose ourselves.
    I’m now following you as well:-)

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  38. i completely agree that a good writer risks being vulnerable and does expose his or her story anyway. having said that, a writer often knows the art of then crafting a world on imageries that need not be literally true… that’s the beauty of it.

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  39. The truth you unearthed in that 4th grade classroom — about why kids do not write:because they have been conditioned to fear the truth or to write to some cultural model– is especially poingant and telling. I look forward to more truths from you. -renee

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  40. You’re brilliant. And I write, and I should be jealous, but you’re so brilliant I’d rather say so instead. There’s truth.

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  41. absolutely loved what you said about students realizing that writing doesn’t have to be a chore and they can say ANYTHING they want to say. I touched upon that in my first post, writing is so freeing. really unique and interesting post, glad I found this blog!

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  42. This is a great post – very interesting.
    But it got me wondering about the definition of ‘truth’. Because surely ‘truth’ is something more than just the factual names and dates and numbers. Surely works of fiction also have a kind of ‘truth’ – I would say that they need to, in order to get us to suspend our disbelief long enough to read them.
    So what kind of ‘truth’ is that? Emotional, perhaps? As in, ‘these two characters are in love, and I know that love is true, so this novel has truth, despite the fact that it’s about little green aliens’…?
    Or a truth to the writer? As in, ‘I’m writing this story, and this is how it feels right to me, so that must be a kind of truth’…?
    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what ‘truth’ is, particularly where writing is concerned – it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while now.

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  43. lovely post. i agree how truth connects no matter how harsh it is. and i have noticed that whenever i try writing, it is the most truthful things that bring the most delightful (taking the liberty from my appreciators!) read.

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  44. Never take advice from alcoholics with suicidal tendencies, good writers or not, unless you want to become one of them. I think the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes in return are less than a good deal. 🙂 It’s like selling your soul to the Devil. Good stories have a good ending. That’s why they’re good. Boths figuratively and literally… 🙂

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  45. I am obsessed with this post! Beautifully written and so interesting. I always love following bloggers whose posts keep me pondering an idea days later.

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  46. What a lovely missive. Especially appreciate that you are giving voice to unheard children. What a beautiful gift to the world–both your writing and your teaching.

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