February 22, 2012

Authenticity

I’ve been thinking about authenticity lately, so I thought today I would cogitate a bit on it. Bear with me.

As a teenager, I did what all teenagers do, which is to try on personalities.  I didn’t know “who I was,” perhaps more than most, so I would see a TV show or read a book and think, that’s really cool, and I would try on whatever characteristics I liked.  Did I want to be cool and witty and sophisticated, or did I want to be brainy and sincere, or did I want to be a cowgirl (pronounced “cah-gerl”)?

I couldn’t be my authentic self because I didn’t know what that authentic self was.  I say that I was perhaps worse than most because I secretly believed I was invisible until I was in my mid-twenties.  I wasn’t good at much, though I was smart, and when I was young I didn’t take a lot of baths or wear cool clothes or anything.  I was also painfully needy and sincere.  It felt like I was always the uncool person, the one on the outside looking in.

So it came as a revelation to me in my mid-twenties that just by being somewhat confident ~ or even acting confident ~ and asserting myself, I made myself cool.  It had more to do with my attitude than my clothes or what I thought I was or wasn’t.

Authenticity in this context is figuring out your tendencies and proclivities and likes and dislikes and being true to them.  It sounds sort of nebulous, and when you’re a teen it’s hard to hold onto, but I really think that’s true.

Because if you spend your life trying to be someone else, you’ll never get to know the person you really all, which is a real waste.  You are the only you in the world. Seriously.  You have so much to offer. 

But even beyond that, denying something you basically are is really corrosive and can eat you up from the inside.  Being gay and hiding it and playing straight is certainly an example, but also other things.  When I was young, I wanted to be male, but only because being female had little worth.  That’s much like being gay ~ you don’t associate with others of your kind and you try really hard to play the opposite and you hate yourself for it all.

Being authentic in your writing is much the same thing.  Readers can tell.  I think your work is so much better when you write “the real you.”  Oh, it can be science fiction or magical realism or whatever, but the emotions and thoughts have to be real.  It has to have an internal logic.  Not only that, but I think the best writing comes from writing about what embarrasses you, what is painful, what really gets to you.  Maybe that’s because those pinch points, those denials, that shameful self, is in some ways the most authentic self, the self that has been denied.

I think our development as writers follow the same path.  We imitate and that’s how we learn who we really are as a writer.

Authenticity in writing takes huge amounts of courage.  You have to lay yourself bare to the world.   But they will love you for it, and your writing will shine because of it.  As Steve Almond says, “Run screaming toward the shame.”

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