Intellectual Honesty Is the Key to Relatable Writing
Candor and humility are your best bets
Can you rebuild a life word by word?
When I set out to do exactly that last July, my intentions were strictly professional. Not for one minute did I take the intangibles into account beyond the fact that outing myself as a depressive would stick forever.
Advocacy isn’t a halfhearted commitment, and I quickly understood I would never be able to recover my writing voice without it.
Trust me, I tried. Turning the pen on yourself is deeply counterintuitive when your profession has always been all about others. But words that skirted around the reason why I was unable to write for five years all sounded phony, empty, and generic.
The moment I chose to embrace radical honesty and document the reality of major depressive disorder, it got easier. Writing felt natural again although I still had to relearn how to do it, a process that is still ongoing.
Like all crafts, writing is a lifelong learning journey.
My goal was to use my own experience to humanize a widespread predicament so someone else wouldn’t have to see their life stall for years like mine did.
While service is the only way I know to approach writing, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
In journalism, readers might leave you comments or contact you off the page, but engaging directly isn’t part of the job. The people side of it is often limited to interviews, reporting, and fact-checking before you file a piece; the relationship side is about keeping in touch with your sources.
Once a piece is published, it’s out of your hands and interactions with readers are rare. Generally, there isn’t enough time, and “never read the comments” has become standard advice. With reason, as they can be vicious.
But in an online hybrid pro/non-pro setting, the internet wants to have a conversation with you. And, ideally, you need to be willing to have it without defaulting to defensive mode whenever someone disagrees with you. Or provides the kind of feedback that makes you realize you could have done better.
“This piece lacks juice,” my friend emailed me yesterday regarding one particular essay, “you’ve written better ones before.” And I was glad for their input as it enables me to improve what I do and how I do it.
There are as many definitions of what constitutes good writing as there are writers.
One helpful and achievable goal is to try and write something that’ll resonate with at least one other person. Focus on connection, seek to find words that might help empower readers.
Whatever we’re going through, we feel alone but we never are. Whatever the questions we’re asking ourselves in the privacy of our own heads, we’re seldom the only ones wrestling with them. Putting them out there is the best way to figure out answers or ways to cope, with outside input.
As a journalist, I used to start conversations by bringing some facts to the table then walking away without ever getting personal unless it was in an oped. But when you write essays that use your own life as material, being available and open to feedback and advice comes with the territory.
From good samaritans with eagle eyes who leave me exacting editing notes because I missed something to privates notes, emails, and disagreements in comments, I welcome it all as long as it’s not scathing ad hominem attacks condoning inhumane practices.
When someone takes time out of their day to suggest something that can help me do or be better, I’m always happy to listen.
This is exactly how I envisaged the future when I started writing again. I pictured a time when I would be functional and able to reconnect with life and the humans in it while I generated ideas and dreamed up new projects.
While I was never explicit about those hopes and dreams, they’ve always lived between the lines, like a coded message to kindred spirits I haven’t met yet.
Or rather, hadn’t met yet.
Writing is how I’m coming back to life, one essay at a time.
Words are how we humans come together and writing is invariably hope made manifest. There’s never any guarantee anyone will read what you publish, or that those who do will understand it in the spirit it was written.
When you pour your heart out onto the page with candor and humility to give voice to the unspeakable or expose something, there’s always an element of risk. You never know what fellow humans will make of your work, which is why the only way to go about it is to be as true to yourself as possible.
There can’t be any genuine human connection otherwise.
Although writing is how I currently support myself, the human element is where true riches lie. While it’s notoriously difficult to make bank, no amount of money could ever conjure up the human warmth words on a page can draw out of the shadows.
By using the present to document the past, I’m able to put the pieces of my identity back together after depression erased me. Doing this is how I’m finding others who share the same curiosity, values, and dedication to the craft of writing that animate me.
If you find the courage to write consistently and don’t let up no matter how disheartened you may sometimes get, a future you haven’t imagined yet will eventually come to meet you.
But only when you don’t shy away from being yourself, unredacted, real in a way that honors our shared humanness. No matter what makes your heart beat faster, the questioning and benevolent minds who are ready to co-create life and art with you are out there, somewhere.
Trust they will make themselves known when the time is right.
And when they do, don’t be surprised if they come bearing joy lovingly salvaged from the darkness you shared.
Because writing is alchemy.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.