The Authentic Life

Terry Gross: And do you care what people think of your personal life? Or is that just irrelevant to you?

Woody Allen: Well, you know, if I say I don’t care, it sounds so cold and callous. But let me put it this way. How could you go through life, you know, taking direction from the outside world? I mean, what kind of life would you have, you know, if you were – if you made your decisions based on, you know, the outside world and not what your inner dictates told you? You would have a very inauthentic life.

NPR, Fresh Air, June 15, 2009

As in life, writing is best when it’s authentic: genuine, consistent, and true to the heart.  Writing that’s written in an authentic way stands out, whether  an essay for a high school junior English class, a term paper for a college seminar, or even a corporate press release.

Authentic writing comes from a place of focus, where nothing else but the topic at hand is considered, where emotion remains rich and unfiltered, and where the prose or poetry flows out unfettered by the thought of, “but what would people think?”  Similarly, to live an authentic life is to “just be yourself.”  Perhaps Shakespeare wrote it best when Polonius says in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.”

A recent guest blog post on The Velveteen Mind is a wonderful reminder of how rare it can be as a writer, and in real life, to freely trust and be authentic throughout the creative process.  Guarded lives are unfortunately the norm, rather than the exception, as it is easier to live in a hidden way than to be open and face whatever consequences might otherwise arise.  Same in writing.  So often a writer can find oneself churning out mindless content, rather than writing one’s own truth.

The development of a guarded writing style seems to begin early on.  I say that after having noticed young elementary children censor themselves during creative writing workshops I’ve facilitated.  For instance, in an icebreaker poetry exercise the students at first were afraid to write down what they imagined things to be or look like.  Before they even picked up pencil and paper the students were comparing their writing with one another and becoming fearful that their own personal ideas were “silly” or “stupid.”  Upon realizing what was happening, and instead of following the original curriculum, we focused on being open and non-judgmental with our writing.  Anxieties lifted, the students became less self-conscious, and their writing became more real – more authentic.

Writers young and old, and especially those who struggle with finding authentic voice, would gain much in considering Parker Palmer’s observations of authenticity.  Palmer discussed the nuances of living a “whole life” a few years back in Yes Magazine, when he wrote that “The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.”  Comparisons, fear, judgment, and self-consciousness hold people back from living their best lives and hold writers back from creating their best work.  As Joseph Campbell once said, “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”  Experiencing that transformation is when one gets in touch with the authentic self, the most important resource a person has.  Once a writer taps into authenticity and turns away from insecure comparisons, nothing can hold a writer back.


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