I came across this phrase, “naked confessions,” in an old Ken Follett novel and it was like being hit with a cold wet rag. I thought, “This is what good writing is all about.”
Coincidently I had just finished Jodi Picoult’s novel Handle with Care. Her telling of this tale is a perfect example of what struck me so clearly about this type of writing. In fact, every Picoult novel I’ve read has this characteristic. She picks a subject no one really wants to think about – i.e. whether or not we would choose to keep a profoundly disabled child or abort it (in Handle with Care) – and pulls us through every angle of the topic. At the heart of all her stories is the truth. Thoughts we really think, all of us. When a character has what society has decided is a terrible reaction, she makes us see that while it might be terrible it is both natural and probably more universal than we’d like to think.
Every piece of fiction contains myriad circumstances that examine choices. We make choices all day long, moment by moment. We also expend a lot of energy in keeping those choices private. Why? Because the truth is not always comfortable and although we may ultimately come to a socially acceptable choice, the places our minds visit in the process of deciding are not always pure. In fact, if truth be known, we are much more profane in our thoughts than we want anyone to know.
It is the profanity or unacceptability of these thoughts that make the story interesting and compelling. No one wants to read about someone instantly knowing the “right thing to do.” This is because a human that knows the correct choice without agonizing through all the possibilities is worst kind of science fiction and we cannot relate to that type of character. The more honest the response an author imbues his hero(ine) with the more compelling the story.
In reality, an excellent book requires naked confessions of the author. In order to write a thought, we must have had it ourselves. It has to have passed through a writer’s mind to make it to the page. It requires exposure – complete and total. When a story does not contain the full range of the author’s own reaction, sometimes pared down to the thoughts the character would actually have herself, it doesn’t ring true.
For instance, in Picoult’s book the two central questions are: 1) Would I abort a profoundly disabled fetus? 2) Would I sue for damages at the loss of my best friend and trauma of my family if it would provide a better life for this disabled child? Both are disturbing questions and the heart of the novel is in the reactions of all the characters to these two questions. The answers are heart-breakingly honest. Therefore, it reached me at a very core level. There were a couple of times I thought, “Oh, get off it” when some of the people in the story seemed very one-dimensional in their responses, until it was revealed later on that they had indeed had the thoughts they wouldn’t want anyone else to know about.
What I’m getting at here is that very basic honesty is required of you if you’re going to write a truly great story. You must access and reveal the deepest, darkest parts of yourself and in the event that you already write dark stuff, you must be willing to shine on the good in yourself as well, because even the worst villains have a bright spot.
I, personally, struggle not so much with revealing the dark side, but instead accessing it, because I really don’t like being in that sphere. However, I push myself because it’s necessary and because I grow as both an author and a human being when I’m willing to look at the truth of myself.
Good luck, my friends, with your own naked confessions!