Five Reasons Why Writers Shouldn’t Hold Back
I read, critique, and edit dozens of manuscripts a year for private clients and for agencies, conferences and writer organizations. I often tell writers not to hold back in their work… not to let fears of self-exposure or concerns about how others might react get in their way. Just let your creativity and emotion flow freely onto the page.
It’s common for memoir or creative nonfiction writers to want to protect themselves (“What will people think of me?”) or their loved ones (“I can’t say that about my sister!”) or even avoid mentioning people they have fallen out with (“They’ll sue me!”).
But the reader knows you’re withholding something – and I promise, they won’t like it. Here’s why writers shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to hold back:
1) Readers can tell anyway if you are avoiding something. There is a gap and we feel it. It makes us uneasy and distrustful of the writer. You don’t want that, do you?
2) You can edit later. So let it all out now! Write authentically and passionately and trust that others will be able to meet you there. Part of the process of writing is to speak your truth. Don’t throttle yourself. You can figure out later if you need to change it to protect people’s feelings or adjust anything for legal reasons. Most often, when we encourage writers to spill it all without self-censor, they later say that the truth they write is not as bad or scary as they anticipated… and they leave it in.
3) Emotion isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Telling the truth without holding back might bring up emotions, but that’s OK. That’s what we want! The memoirist Anaïs Nin put it this way: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Sometimes the taste isn’t so palatable, but if you’re drawn to write about something that happened to you, trust the instinct. Allow it to come up and cry all the way through if necessary. Let yourself be angry if that is what arises – slash the page with the anger. Let yourself be sad and grieve. The page is intimate. The page is your friend.
Remember you don’t have to show it to anyone (see point 2 above) but if you repress your emotions and write only the pretty, sanitized version of your experience, then not only were you hurt once, but you are hurting yourself again. Own your truth, own your voice.
4) If it feels scary, go for it – that’s where the energy is. Fiction writers can also feel vulnerable about exposing themselves, even when hiding behind their narrator or characters. My advice is: If it feels scary, go for it. Sometimes we hold back because even in fiction we’re still trying to be “nice” or perhaps politically correct. Or we might think, “I’m not the kind of writer who writes that kind of stuff.” But fiction is about life as it is and sometimes life isn’t nice or politically correct… look at Shakespeare! Better to overreach in a draft, then rein it back in revisions, than hold ourselves back in the first draft. It’s much more difficult to fix a ‘held back’ passage later. Usually it has to be rewritten from the ground up.
5) Trust in yourself. Sometimes we can get stingy about our words or ideas, feeling that we’ve got to hold something back, keep something in the bank as it were, as though if we spill the words too freely we might run out of them. We might run dry and find ourselves in the red for ideas. This will not happen, I assure you. There are unlimited creative ideas and many lively words deposited in that bank! And in this magical account, as soon as you spend them they are automatically replenished.
As author Annie Dillard says: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time… Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water… Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
I’d love to hear what helps you let go and write your truth freely. Tell us in the comments box below.