Creative Tensions: Between Plastic and Authentic

June 22, 2011

This is the second post in a series on writing I’m calling “Creative Tensions.” The first was entitled, “Between Annoyance and Passivity.” It is some advice on nurturing relationships that can grow your writing opportunities.

Today I want to discuss another tension you will need to navigate in your writing, especially if you’re writing (as I do) about your faith and your life. I supposed this advice would fit with those who communicate in other ways, especially preaching.

People connect with other people who seem to be real. That is they are not so wooden and stuffy that the word which come from their mouths (or pens) seem so lofty as to be impractical. My best writing coaches always encouraged me to “show, don’t tell.” For those who write fiction, a person’s character is best fleshed out in dialogue and story. And for those who write inspirational nonfiction, it is best to include real-life examples, allegory, and illustration. Mostly people want to see these principles lived out in real-time, to prove that it can actually be done.

Their is an opposite error, however, in that a writer can be way too “authentic.” What I mean by that is that a writer can use a book, a blog, an article to serve as a place to unload every grievance, perceived slight, and gory story. And perhaps in hopes of being considered “authentic” a writer (or preacher) may enhance areas of his life to seem more colorful than they are.

Where is the sweet spot? I’d like to say I’ve found it in my writing and preaching, but I haven’t. There have been many times I’ve been way too preachy and other times when I’ve been too personal. What is most helpful to me is to have a spouse or trusted friend read through my stuff. Especially if they’re willing to be honest and tell us if the story we told is either unreal or has a bitter edge or is just unhelpful.

Another tool is to go through your writing and see how often you talk about yourself. Honestly, how many times does “I” appear? And are you creating drama out of situations that honestly were rather mundane? Are you spiritualizing every single decision? As a reader, this type of writing gets tiresome.

Now if you’re struggle is to be too preachy, as I was early in my career, then a great tool is to read your work out loud. And then replace instances of the word, “you” with “we.” Replace “most Christians” and “most Churches” with questions like, “Don’t we tend to . . .” The word, “we” adds a layer of personal authenticity, as if you’re including yourself in the wrestling over tough issues. And yet it’s not too much of “I” as to be overly narcissistic.

Summary: Look for the sweet spot between narcissism and inauthenticity.