If I had a writing mantra, it would be to write the truth. It’s borrowed from Robert McKee, inspired by an inscription he put in my book years ago when he signed it.
What does it mean to write the truth?
I’ve learned that this doesn’t mean I need to write “my” truth or bare my soul, sharing things that leave me feeling too open to the world. Since the summer I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript. Through the speaker of a poem I can explore “a” truth. It may be mine or it may be a truth I’ve observed in someone else.
Intuition and trust are essential elements of my writing process. I often close my eyes while I’m writing, open to the direction my hands want to take, and let the poem determine its own focus and shape. The same thing happens for me in fiction and playwriting. I close my eyes and listen, allowing my intuition to guide me. It’s about capturing the essence of what is true.
During the revision process I ask: What is this about? What do I want to say with this piece? And then I work back through it to strengthen the themes, clarify the truths, and sculpt the work into a finished product. Sometimes a poem looks very different when I finish, maybe even unrecognizable from the original notes.
What is your truth?
How do you write the truth?
By Jessica Outram
by the window
she reads in a shawl
next to a bamboo shoot
once she starred in a low budget film
muted symphonic rock soundtrack,
small town glamour with tea-stained teeth—
acoustic ballads and bloody fingers
but she avoids to feel in all keys,
chokes and runs before opening night
her hopes, deranged pixies
shadow pictures in empty frames because
her only friend remains a lizard
so she waits there still
by the window
and we peek each time
as we pass
from the street
A Video Reflection
In this video, I continue to reflect on Honesty & Courage. Is writing an act of bravery?
It’s like a scavenger hunt…
Every day this week try to find honesty and courage, noting your discoveries in your journal. Or–use your camera! Go out and find examples of honesty and courage in your neighbourhood.
Choose a story, book, poem, or article to examine.
- Analyze. Name the values the writer reveals. What do you learn about the writer through the characters, the setting, the creative choices she makes? Begin by seeking the truth in this work. What is it trying to say?
- Understand. How is the form servicing the message? What if this were a memoir or a poem? How would the reader’s perspective change? Why does form matter?
- Critique. Which ideas are repeated? What makes the story/idea plausible? How do moments in the story connect or disconnect with you as a person? As a writer? Which truths are implicit? Explicit?
- Connect. Through journaling, try to gain a deeper understanding of how this story connects to your writing. Make a list of three things you notice and then use what you’ve learned from this piece to experiment in your own.
Choose at least one of these tasks (or do them all!) The more that you engage with the prompts and activities, the more change you will find in your practice.
Choose a character from a piece you’re working on, pretending you have just met this person at a bus stop. Write for twenty minutes, trying to play with what the character reveals and conceals.
Make a list of all the times you demonstrated courage through your writing, then go to a bookstore and make a list of stories about the courage of others.
For a week try to recognize the truth in people. During or after every encounter with someone you know and someone you don’t know, reflect on their essence and try to determine what’s beneath the surface of our moment. What’s really important to them?
Do an image search for a name that interests you. Choose an image. (For example: Molly.) After brainstorming everything you want to know about the person in the picture, free-write the inciting incident of a story, a moment when her life is thrown out of balance.
Robert McKee suggests that good stories show characters with values at stake. What is at stake for your characters? Make a list of values, select one, then make a list of what that value looks like in various stages. How might you take the value to its limits, and/or stretch the value in many directions?
Find quotations that inspire you! Pin some of them up around your home or add another jar to your desk: this one full of the words of others.
Here is a list of quotes I have in my jar: