Being Real

This week in her Prosperous Writer newsletter, ( ) author Christiana Katz asks us to blog about authenticity.

As a writer, one of the most important things we can do is to find our voice.

It took me many years and more mistakes to find mine. In college I didn’t need a voice to write my term papers or answer essay questions, though I occasionally snuck it in. I once wrote a poem to introduce a paper on Piaget for a Psychology class. And I got an “A” on the paper. I should have drawn a picture too. I cringe to remember I actually did that, for a report on stay-at-home mothers. Ditto on the “A.” Maybe it was the rebel in me. Maybe those professors just appreciated a break in the monotony of grading papers that all followed the stringent guidelines. Whatever it was, I haven’t added either a poem or the picture to my queries, and don’t expect an editor would appreciate my creativity if I did.

But for a long time early on in my writing, my essays and articles were ill-disguised attempts to sway the reader to believe in the same thing I did, to think the way I thought. Too often, I thought my ideas were right and the only thing preventing everyone else from agreeing with me is that they just didn’t know enough to agree, and it was my place to inform and influence them.

It didn’t work, and in fact, I offended and irritated more than I ever educated or enlightened. My voice was authentic, but it was annoying. Moms should stay at home. They should nurse their babies. Use cloth diapers. Vaccinations can be bad. Homeschooling is good. Couponing saves you money. Blah. Blah. Blah. These are all valid topics, and ones that can be the premise for an article or even a book. But. Was my writing actually doing anything other than making me feel superior? Was it helping anyone? Did it make anyone cry? Laugh? What was the point of those early articles and essays other than reinforcing my own beliefs and those of the like-minded who read them?  There is that need, of course. We all need support and reinforcement for what we believe. And in order to form our own opinions we also need the other stuff; the scientific research, the opinionated essays, and the articles that either refute or support our gut feelings.

Then one day I wrote something that made me cry while I wrote it.  There was catharsis, sure, but more to it than that.  I’d dug deeper. Instead of picking at a scab, I pulled it off and let it bleed. And in the process, I turned a corner with my writing. I delved into the universal feelings I could share with the strangers that would be my readers; losing a parent, childhood poverty, messy houses, the death of a pet, caring for an ill spouse.  I still care about the other subjects: homeschooling, vaccinations, breastfeeding, abortion, divorce, and could get passionate about them if so inclined, but oh, how my writing voice has grown and developed in just the past few years. When I can make the reader feel right along with me, I have accomplished something truly wonderful. When I see the tears in the corner of the eyes, hear the chuckles in a room, or see heads nodding while I read what I’ve written, then I know I have done my job as a writer. I have written in an authentic voice, a voice that someone might want to hear more of.

During my husband’s cancer treatment he was receiving care from two different female doctors; a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist.  He met them on the same day, in the same hospital room, when they visited at different times to discuss his future care.  We met with the radiation oncologist first. As soon as she started talking, we knew Dr. Susie was “real people,” down-to-earth despite her advanced educational and professional background. Her caring demeanor was authentic.  She asked questions about our life and our family, and then amazed us eight weeks later when bumping into us in the hall, by actually remembering we had a large family and homeschooled. She treated David as a person and not just as a cancer patient.  We loved her, and in fact, still keep in touch with her, four years later.

The other female doctor treated David very well, medically. She knew her stuff, that’s for sure.  But David always felt like he was just a bunch of numbers when we met with her: the blood counts, the effects of the chemo drug. He was the cancer patient in the chart she studied, not a daddy and husband. While during the initial consultation she had reached over and put her hand on his leg, it seemed contrived, as if she purposefully was attempting to put him at ease and show that she cared. The gesture wasn’t authentic. She was trying too hard.

Just like I used to try too hard to make a point.

Which doctor would you prefer?

Which writer would you prefer to read?


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