Cultivating the Art of Writing is a column devoted to the development of both the life of writer and the art of writing. In this series, we’ll talk about those spiritual, personal, and practical threads that weave together beautiful works of prose and poetry.
I believe the most powerful writing embodies something of the writer’s feelings. Whatever pathos comes up most strongly for the writer should be present, felt, and palpable in the work. If the writer exults, the writing should feel exultant. David wrote, “rejoice in the Lord and be glad!” because he was, at least when composing Psalm 32, in a state of joy. If the writer is in a season of grief, the writing ought to drip lament. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
This quality we find in David, Frost, and every other writer whose work we find a connection with is called authenticity. It’s as much a matter of craft as it is emotional availability. Without authenticity, my writing, down to the syntax, will suffer disconnection. When I’m open to creating in authenticity, what’s happening inside of me finds its way into the externalities of the work. Authenticity is that quality of genuine representation, the state in which I favor real presence over performance, when the material of what’s expressed resembles the heart of the expresser.
It takes time to find the courage to be an authentic writer. It takes patience. Authenticity is forged in the kiln of honest reflection. In his inestimable Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to the solitary process of cultivating authenticity, when he charges:
“This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. […]
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.”
If my years of writing have brought any one truth home to me, it’s that when my work comes from a place of inner necessity, no criticism can touch it. The level of rigorous honesty with which I write becomes one of the highest criteria by which I can measure my work.
Unlike originality, which, as an aim, will always lead the writer into unoriginality, or popularity, which will tempt the writer into disconnection from themselves in the name of performance, authenticity is the only goal the writer is guaranteed to reach.
W. H. Auden, celebrated poet and contemporary to the likes of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and J. R. R. Tolkien, wrote,
“Sincerity in the proper sense of the word, meaning authenticity, is, however, or ought to be, a writer’s chief preoccupation. No writer can ever judge exactly how good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while, whether something he has written as authentic…”
Auden goes on to say that it isn’t necessary for a writer to believe in an idea for the writing to be authentic. I could write a fantasy story chock-full of ideas and conventions of my own making without any conviction behind them and the writing wouldn’t suffer for my lack of belief. But, Auden says, “it is certainly necessary that his emotions be deeply involved” for the writing to be authentic. My emotional attachment to the writing makes way for my emotional presence in the writing. When I embody the truth of what’s going on inside of me, I’m free to embody my work.
Now, authentic writing might not be read widely, but it stands a far better chance of being connected with deeply. Most importantly, it’s the only writing the writer can connect with. The most authentic writing I’ve done in the last month was not a chapter for a book, or a poem, or an essay. It was an amends letter. I wrote a couple of them, as a part of a guided process of healing, but one was to someone who broke relationship with me for an eventual relationship with another. Such is just one of the painful fields from which authentic writing is harvested. When independence is valued more highly than commitment, when claims of love crumble in the trials of building a relationship, the hurt is sure to be immense. I had spent too many words prior to this amends raging, lamenting, and bargaining. Mostly all invulnerable protests to keep from saying the thing I most needed to say: that I had a part to play too; that I can’t force someone to want to heal with me, but that I can heal for me; that I’m at fault; that my actions and words didn’t reflect my heart; that I’m committed to change; that offering the amends that I wish had been offered to me must be closure enough; that even unrequited love isn’t wasted.
No published piece of writing I’ve recently written will bear as much painful confession, accepted anger, and half-processed grief as that amends. It sprang from the necessity of my inner work. In its emotional honesty, it’s self-validating. Authentic writing needs no acclaim beyond its own honesty.
In his retold myth of Cupid and Psyche, Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis captures this quality of authenticity:
“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, ‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words.”
Like Frost’s tears in the writer or Rilke’s “I must,” Lewis’s emphasis on saying that which has lain at the center of your soul becomes a litmus test for authenticity. To bring out whatever lies within, to lay bare through the written word what’s hidden in the writer, to make amends, to write that gratitude list, to connect your pain to the poetic, to write from the sacred place of deep involvement, this is the whole of it, the writer’s chief occupation, the writer’s pearl of great price.
Because authenticity is a matter of heart and spirit, application can prove a struggle. Consider beginning the inner journey by locating the place from where you begin. Authenticity begins in connection with God and with ourselves. I’ve found that connection with myself brings me to God, and connection with God brings me back to myself. I am fearfully and wonderfully made, exclaims the Psalmist, a bilateral acknowledgement of both my Maker and how it is He made me. From where do you begin the journey inward? Is connecting with yourself a challenge? Has your personal formation taught you to ignore the self? Are you aware of the role your feelings ought to play in your creativity? Know thyself. Check in with yourself as a matter of personal and professional process. Cultivate curiosity around why that might be a challenge.
Start within, then move outwardly. Ask of your prose what you ask of yourself. Can you find yourself in it. Ask it, “where are you?” When I read Thomas Merton’s prayer, I find Merton.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Herein dwells Merton in the glories of his writerly authenticity. I need not search to find him. His felt limitations, doubts, and hope hover in his syntax. I don’t have to have known Merton to know Merton. For the authentic writer, the work temples the spirit. In the prose dwells the person.
Lastly, as a point of practicality, write your first draft as if you are your only readership. You and the God who indwells you. Write from the heart. Write to your heart. You’ll get to those other readers waiting to be moved by your words. That’s for those second and third and fourth drafts of the head. Your first draft needs to drip with the passion of your innermost being. If it does, others will feel the truth of your words in theirs.
The featured image, “Light in Gladstone’s Window,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Corey is a poet, writer, speaker, and educator. He holds Master’s Degrees in Religion, English, and Counseling, and a Ph.D. in Literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, and the forthcoming The Serve the Work: Stray Thoughts on Christ and Creativity. Corey has written articles and given talks on subjects ranging from C. S. Lewis, the theology of creativity, the neurology of the imagination, and the power of story to heal life’s wounds.
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