When world-acclaimed musician Arthur Rubinstein published his first autobiography, a thrilling story turned NY Times bestseller of his extravagant youth, dramatic loves, near-fatal depression and career struggles in fin de siècle Europe called “My Young Years”, skeptics raised more than one eyebrow. “He just made that up, that’s certainly too much,” some said. “Well, he’s 75, he’s probably just forgotten and reinvented things,” others shook heads. “It’s not like all of those things could’ve happened to one person in real life.”
Different authors, different subgenres — blog posts, memoirs, essays, even novels with an ‘autobiographical’ background — similar accusations: the writer “spiced things up” to intrigue readers. Far from welcoming, such comments imply the author wasn’t being honest with readers, was holding something back.
With the paradigm of vulnerable writing becoming the anticipated alternative to Instagram-perfect lives/lies, modern writers are eager to fit the new #nofilter writing trend and expose their vulnerability in front of a million-strong audience.
Against this background, the challenge all of us are facing is:
Can ‘naked’ writing make a really good story?
In the genre of personal writing (memoir, personal essay, Medium articles, blog posts, etc.) we frequently hear two axioms:
- Be vulnerable
- Don’t treat your writing as a journal
Read that back to back, and it seems like two self-contradictory pieces of advice. How can one write a vulnerable piece of non-fiction writing (which is beyond just ‘open’ or ‘sincere’) unless one keeps it as honest as a journal?
For most writers, the key to balancing vulnerability and structure often lies in the sense of style and its partner, imagination.
The problem with ‘imagination’ is that we hardly think of it outside the fiction genre. When you’ve finally pulled up all your courage and decided to be as vulnerable as you can in that memoir, post, or personal essay, imagination may seem last on your list of values. It may even seem like betrayal.
Yet without imagination, there’s no great writing.
Balancing credibility and imagination
It may seem unusual to talk about imagination in a non-fiction context. However, if you ever read (someone else’s) published journal entry, you’d have noticed that improving on it isn’t about using imagination to “cover up” truth. It’s about using imagination to bring out truth in a way that’s definitive and clear for the reader.
Here’s a brief guide to help bring out more great stuff in ‘nofilter’ writing:
1. Don’t just ‘go with the flow’ — If there’s one thing that jumps out in journals, it’s the stream of consciousness style of writing. You’ll find the same in “raw” personal stories — various thoughts recorded as they came and went. The major difference is that your audience is hardly as knowledgeable as your journal about the point you’re trying to convey. Without (re)defined thought structure, they will just get lost in your train of thought.
While great authors have employed the stream of consciousness technique in fiction, it’s best to leave it out of memoirs, essays, and articles. In this genre, being down to the (main) point is key.
2. Raw ideas don’t mean raw style — Anything about to be published should have the clearest outline. Being open and vulnerable regarding ideas does not absolve a writer from adhering to concise form.
Consider both your writing technique and the visual readability of your story (different kinds of headings, formatting, bullet points, etc.). Don’t neglect style just because you wish to expose raw, vulnerable ideas. Being raw but ordered is not self-contradictory. In writing, the two complement one another perfectly.
3. Don’t get heavy on unimportant details— Ruminating about secondary ideas and thoughts is one of the most frequent (and tiresome) stumbling stones of nofilter writing. These interludes are distracting to the reader and in the worst case, overshadow the main idea itself.
On revision, underline which details aren’t essential to your story and may distract the reader. Cut or edit these out for concision. You may even set yourself a specific word count (like 1200 words max) to keep things concise.
4. Understand your audience — Writing that leans heavily on the journal side is usually all about us, its writers. Public writing is always about the audience we’re addressing and the kind of afterthoughts (lessons, ideas, etc.) we want the audience to grasp after the read.
Try to ‘categorize’ the vital idea you’d like to pass on to readers and keep that main idea strong as you write (it helps to note down a category like ‘self’, ‘education’, ‘relationships’ etc. and stick to it). Avoid the general “life lessons” category, get really specific.
5. Reimagine details where necessary— This is where healthy imagination is incredibly important, whatever genre you write in (fiction or nonfiction). While keeping your main ideas honest and concise, start filling in on ‘decorative’ elements that highlight the emotional truth of the moment.
The weather may have been absolutely mediocre (or you hadn’t noticed it at all) the day when your first love left you. Yet conveying how steel-bright rays cut into your eyes as you woke alone will give the reader an instant flash of insight into your emotion. Who cares for the weather if your imagination found a better medium for the emotion?
6. Edit responsibly— As a rule, serious journalistic articles are given more aftercare than personal ones. In personal writing, we’re strongly tempted to leave things natural and skip the scrupulous editing. For readers, a lot of quality and cohesiveness is lost due to this.
I usually lose count of the times I edit my journalistic articles, but the golden rule of “write once, edit at least thrice” applies perfectly to personal articles. Editing implies a revision of structure, a cut of excess words, more than one look into your thesaurus to replace generic words with strong synonyms, and a grammar check.
40+ years after the last word had been written, I flip through Arthur Rubsintein’s memoirs for the umpteenth time, smiling, laughing and crying with him. I no longer remember if all of his unbelievable, passionate, fantastic adventures were true to the letter.
What I do remember are the words, “love life for better or for worse”, which every single one of his adventures, lines, and details echoed in its own way.
If there’s anything we can learn about personal writing from someone (writer or not) who’s done it well, it’s that beauty isn’t about raw fact.
As with all creative writing, the beauty of #nofilter writing is in pushing and challenging the limits of our ability to convey emotional truth — the kind of truth each writer wants their readers to remember and cherish.
As we go out and about our own work, let’s attempt to convey that kind of truth as best as we can.
Angela Yurchenko is a business journalist and classical musician. In her personal writing, she shares stories of the human experience through the lens of emotional intelligence, philosophy, arts & culture. Find more of Angela’s writing on Medium and on her blog, Birdsong.
Image courtesy of Marcelo Moreira.