Last month, a friend asked me to help with a street collection for a charity in Dublin. Being introverted, I procrastinated about it for two weeks. Eventually, I decided a good cause trumpets my desire to work alone.
So, I donned a luminous bib for the charity, and I wandered out onto the rainy, cold streets of Dublin with a bucket in hand.
I held out the bucket as strangers walked up and down looking at their phones, shoes, straight ahead, behind, anywhere and everywhere but at me and my half-empty bucket.
(I couldn’t blame them; I’ve done the same many times.)
I was jingling the coins inside and studying a billboard for the new Star Wars film when a middle-aged, well-dressed woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“I want you to know why I can’t donate today,” she said, her voice round like an over-sized lemon. “They organised a big collection at church on Sunday, and I gave a lot, a lot.”
“That’s good to know,” I said, wrapping my hands around the bucket. “I best get back to it.”
The woman nodded, pulled her handbag onto her shoulder and walked down the street.
Thinking about our exchange that night, I wondered why this well-heeled woman was so concerned about what I thought of her refusal to put a few euro into my lonely bucket.
(I wasn’t even thinking about her!)
Caring What Others Think
We’re guilty of caring too much about what others think. Many new writers, artists and creative people worry about their audience, so they look away from their work, and they hold something back.
I get it. I do it too.
Making it Personal
Those messy personal stories about the party where I drank too much, called the host the wrong name and passed out in the bathroom or the time when I was fired because my maths wasn’t up to the task don’t frighten me. I know how those turn out. It’s telling you about them. I care too much about what you think.
So, I remind myself, accomplished artists struggle too.
Accomplished Artists Struggle Too
Earlier this year, I was one hundred pages into a non-fiction book by New York Times best-selling author. I was enjoying the book and the author’s way with words until he teased a personal story.
He told his readers about a time of inner crisis, only to announce it was too personal to reveal. Then, he promptly moved on without revealing anything more. I threw his book across the room.
What was the point in reading on?
This writer, as accomplished as he is, looked away.
Your readers want to know they are not alone. They need you to share some essential truth from your life with them.
In a world of click-bait, fake news and cute cat videos, they crave authenticity.
Fearless writing takes guts.
Joan Didion wrote about the death of her husband, John, in The Year of Magical Thinking, and the death of her daughter, Quintana, in Blue Nights. She describes her naked grief and her fragility with such intensity that I could barely read on. Now, honest writing like that takes real courage.
Joan is an artist who stands apart.
What’s Your Story?
But, you can still tell us a story where you lost, fell down or gave up. You can tell us about the time you were fired. Or when your relationship broke down. Or your struggle with drink/drugs/food/gambling/online shopping/Call of Duty/insert vice of choice.
Struggling to Find Your Courage?
So what should you do if you’re struggling to find your courage?
No, I don’t mean holding on to your spare change and walking past the shivering guy collecting spare change on the street (he’s not even thinking about you!)
Close the door and write for yourself first. Don’t worry about what your wife/husband/mother/father/friend will think.
Write like no one will ever read what you’re saying. Look at the truth until your eyeballs bleed onto the blank page.
Call it a journal entry or call it therapy if you must. Sure, it will be messy, more painful and rawer than what feels comfortable.
But that’s the point.
Don’t Look Away
Later on, you can edit for critics, boss and lover. You can decide if you want to reveal an inner crisis. If you’ve got what it takes to publish something honest.
But, what you must never do is look away.