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Get Naked: The Most Important Writing Advice You Will Ever Read

Ok, that might be a little bit of hyperbole. But as we close out the year, I want to share the most important writing advice I’ve ever run across. It is at the heart of the weekly blogging meme I started in 2011 called life:unmasked (link up your unmasked posts here every Wednesday!). It is the heart and soul of what and why I write. I originally published this post on BlogHer 18 months ago.

"I'm naked" cartoon

“Writers fail because they come to the page fully clothed. They adorn themselves with fanciful plots and layer themselves with complicated character development. They use flowery prose and words you have to look up in the dictionary. They do this not to impress their readers, but to keep their readers at arm’s length. They’re afraid. Afraid to bare their souls and inject themselves into their work. For that they are cowards.

“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”

Quoted with permission from  “Writing Naked” by Billy Coffey.

Before you continue reading, please please please go read his entire post. It’s worth the five minutes. I will wait.

I read that post when Billy originally published it. What he and his writing instructor said affirmed the gut instinct and fire I’ve had in my belly about writing.

I won’t lie. Writing naked is difficult. Terrifying. It feels exactly like getting naked in front of people.

But I push through my fear. Strip down. Bleed all over my notebooks and computer screen.

Why?

Because I don’t just write for me, I write for you.

Billy is right. Writing naked connects with people. And that’s what I want — to connect with you, to help you recognize that you are not alone, that we’re in this thing together.

Dozens of men and women battling alongside me to overcome depression have emailed to thank me for being willing to tell my story with all the ups and downs.

Grieving parents and family members have found a virtual shoulder to cry on in posts in which I’ve poured out my agony, grief, and anger about the life and death of my daughter, Elli. While each of our losses is unique, we share an I-will-never-be-the-same pain.

I’ve waded into theology, despite the conservative church’s resistance to women in theology, in hopes that other women will find their appetites whetted for deep thinking. I also hope that men will recognize that we have valuable insight that they need and do not have.

But just as some people are uncomfortable with real nakedness, some do not appreciate naked writing. I have learned that the backlash can be swift and severe.

One of the scariest posts I’ve ever published was the one in which I wrote a really personal post about defying stereotypes and about the spiritual demolition and reconstruction I’ve undertaken over the past few years. Dozens of people poured out their relief in comments and emails over the fact that someone was willing to put into words what they were experiencing — that I’m not completely sure about my faith.

But I also caught a lot of flak for that post (and others like it, particularly about my questions about faith). Some expressed tremendous concern and discomfort, fearing that my raw posts about doubt could feed someone else’s doubt (is doubt contagious?). Some were offended, feeling that I was putting down those who do fit the stereotypes I reject.

I hear them. I get that they think that writing naked is indecent, improper, possibly even dangerous. I agree that this kind of writing can be hard to read.

Here’s the thing though. No form of communication is perfect. Some forms fit certain people better than others, both writers and readers.

As much as I get where they are coming from, I simply cannot put some clothes on my writing. For me, writing with clothes on is fake and results in garbage. The truth is that life can dump you into a latrine, and let me tell you, when you’re swimming in excrement, Mrs. Sunshine chirping cliches and pretending all is fine doesn’t help. You need someone who has been there and survived, who knows how you can get out and get cleaned up. That is both hope and help.

I refuse to be fake with you. One of my core values as a writer and as a person is to pursue being genuine, honest, authentic. I cannot do other than write naked, come what may. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. You’re free to read or write what best fits you.

I will not compromise my integrity as a person or as a writer to please those who prefer pat answers, religious jargon, God in a nice neat box, and rainbows.

 

What do you think? Is there such a thing as writing too naked?  Should I have used the name “write naked” instead of “life unmasked?” Will you be joining Life:Unmasked this year?

 

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Comments

  1. Loving the truth, I’m with you. Thank you for being so courageous despite the backlash.
    What are we here for if not to be our authentic selves? I personally find the religious jargon and neat answers very painful in the face of my own struggles. Who does pretense help? Nobody. Thank you very much.
    sharon recently posted..ChristmasMy Profile

  2. I have to say this is what I struggle with when writing sermons. I battle between “writing naked” and not putting too much out there. There is an expectation of my office that doesn’t allow it–but I’m not sure people will be moved by the “Ms. Sunshine Chirping” and I think I do EVERYONE a disservice to pretend like I don’t struggle with what they struggle with.

    Plus there’s the added struggle of having to SAY it in front of people. to see the looks on their faces. To have to stand “naked” in front of someone is an added fear. Can I get through this without tears? Can I get through this without my voice shaking–is it ok if my voice shakes at that line? Will I remember it or change my mind mid-sentence? This is something great to wrestle with for sure! Grins!

    Lovely post, and I will continue to strive to find the balance! Love you you as always!

    • EmJ, I have been there in a limited way, when Scott served as elder in our church for five years. I hated being on that pedestal of you-are-a-leader-so-set-a-good-example because it didn’t allow for making mistakes and setting the example of how to handle one’s flaws and weaknesses. It’s so weird — you’re in a fishbowl, but you’re still not allowed to be human. Sometimes I found myself driven to throw myself off the pedestal intentionally and deal with the fallout in hopes that taking the plunge would break the cycle and allow us all to link arms in our brokenness. I think that should we ever be in a similar position, I will set things up from the get-go. Who knows if it would be different. It is an extremely fine line, for sure.

    • I’ve been there EmJ – not regularly because I was an associate pastor, but often enough to recognize this struggle. Read the sermons of Barbara Brown Taylor – they helped me be appropriately real in the pulpit. Fred Buechner’s sermon collection, “A Room Called Remember” also was a great resource. You can tell the truth and be the truth. And sometimes – not habitually, but occasionally – tears are the most honest thing you can offer the people of God.
      Diana Trautwein recently posted..From the Inside Out: A Guest PostMy Profile

    • I’ve always said that sharing my writing is something akin to walking naked down Main Street. To me it is the ultimate in vulnerability. Amazing that we actually choose it! EmJ, I am a pastor too and I have the same struggle – how much to share, how “real” to be. Always a dilemma.

      • Yes! Yes! No doubt that sometimes tears are good–but as a woman in the pulpit each week, its a struggle. But its fun and lovely. This week I said something REALLY REALLY dumb–and it was great to remember this and stop and say, that was really awful, lets try again. I think being naked and human and loving beyond belief gives us the ability to say, sometimes I mess up.

        Praying blessings on you, and for all of us to show a little more skin this New Year!
        EmJ recently posted..Starting OverMy Profile

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes! I’ve known for a while, but only recently embraced the fact that I want my writing to be (as you called it) naked. I ALWAYS get response when I share my dirty soul because people want what’s real! They want to know that they’re not alone in their own struggles. Hearing that someone else’s children did “that” or another wife struggles “here” or a woman who loves God with her everything still can’t get it right, releases people from the shame of secrets. And secrets have no power except when they’re secrets.

    Preach it sister! I love it!

  4. I love this, Joy. I’ve deleted SO many posts, never letting them see the light of day because they were just too naked, but it’s the ones I considered deleting and didn’t that seem to have the most impact. Maybe I should delete less…
    Jenny Rae Armstrong recently posted..Toxic Christianity: When Our Public Face Poisons FaithMy Profile

  5. I think the biggest concern for me of writing naked is that my life is so intertwined with others that I sometimes bring their nakedness to light when that’s definitely NOT my right. Sometimes I don’t untangle myself well from them, and maybe flash something that isn’t mine to flash. I think I’ve improved in that area, but it’s still something that I struggle with.

    And like you, I’ve had some negative reactions to my naked/unmasked writing. But that simply doesn’t compare to the positive reactions that I’ve received from the same. Sure, it sucks when you get reamed for your ideas/thoughts/questions, but if I can absorb some of that so someone else can feel a little bit more normal? Totally worth it.
    Alise recently posted..Repost: Who’s the Bully Now?My Profile

    • Excellent point, Alise, and one reiterated by Ed a couple of comments down. It’s ok for ME to bare all, but I have to be VERY careful that, as you put it so well, I don’t flash something that isn’t mine to flash. That is a tricky line to walk, and I’m living in that tension with you.

      Most of the backlash I’ve received has been about my own vulnerability or people reading into what I wrote and assuming that I’m putting them down for their choices in my statements about how I’ve made different choices.

    • Alise – EXACTLY right. Care must be taken not to tell the wrong story, especially naked! But doing it prayerfully and tenderly can be appropriate, too. Because none of us ever has just one story to tell – we always overlap with one another, don’t we?
      Diana Trautwein recently posted..From the Inside Out: A Guest PostMy Profile

      • i’ve felt this impact i can have on others quite acutely. as a consequence of life unmasked i’ve been asked to write about a couple of other topics. Topics that would bring to the light stories that may not be mine to tell. but that decision, that realisation, wouldn’t have happened at all without participating in life unmasked. I’m grateful for the way its helped me develop my character and discernment.

  6. i wonder if there is a difference between naked writing and naked writer writing? i use a light pseudonym for various reasons, but the older i get the more vulnerable, raw, and messy my writing gets. these are the posts that seem to resonate with readers more. but just like you said, there are always those who experience discomfort and issue “cautions”. i like your question: is doubt contagious?
    rain recently posted..she ::My Profile

    • I’ve seriously considered starting over and going anonymous, especially when the criticism has been intense. But I’m too far in at this point, and for me, I want to write what I’m willing to put my name on. It isn’t right for everyone, but that’s where I find myself every time I reevaluate.

      • I’ve thought about anonymity too. but then I ask myself whether, as a principle, I want to stand by my writing? not because I am judged by it, or that it is me, but because there is a power in putting a name to your work. Like you, Joy, I want to write what I’m willing to put my name on.

  7. Writing naked (not literally, of course) is both easy and hard for me. On one hand, it’s easier for me to get all my feelings out after they’ve been building up inside me for who knows how long. But on the other hand, sometimes I worry if my Calvinist in-laws will read it and be like, “You what???????”
    Travis Mamone recently posted..Favorite Albums of 2011My Profile

  8. I agree with you to the point that writers should write with truth and integrity, but the important line we should not cross is writing in such a way that we make someone else naked. If I ever mention other people, I either make sure the topic is rather vanilla or change names and identifying characteristics. I have no desire to drag my wife or anyone else from my family onto my blog because that is my personal life where I need to preserve those relationships. These are blurry lines for me, as I feel a need to write as a child of divorced parents, but I don’t want to expose my parents at the same time. My sense is that truly great writing walks that fine line and sometimes stumbles over it… just a little.

    There’s another aspect to how we write that I find in vulnerable posts. The ones that seem to work best describe a process. Posts that are either smugly certain or despairingly bleak create a false sense of certainty. We never know how we’ll change, so while we open ourselves up to share where we’re at, we can place ourselves in a tough position if we present our inner selves as fixed and unmoving. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we’ll continue to change and evolve.
    ed cyzewski recently posted..Why Seasons of Rest Are Risky and Why We Need ThemMy Profile

    • Absolutely agree that we must be careful not to disrobe others in our efforts to be authentic ourselves. I know some writers who have decided that because of things like you reference here, certain stories simply cannot be told… yet. Other times it’s possible to change the stories to protect the others involved, and I’ve done that too. I also have those people read things first to make sure they are comfortable with what I wrote (I did this for the post I wrote for Anna Blanch’s Violence Against Women series, for example).

      Your point about the process is helpful. My only pushback would be that some people have urged me to only write the messy dark stuff when I have a happy ending to include. This isn’t authentic either — not every story has a happy ending. Life doesn’t always have nice neat edges and a bow on top. But I like the way you put it — we can leave it open-ended, looking with hope to the one thing we DO know: that things will not stay the same.

      • I totally agree with you about checking with people. I didn’t do that once, and ended up accidentally hurting someone very close to me. I won’t make that mistake again. Sometimes I don’t think to check, but if it pings on my “this could have pushback for someone other than you” radar at all, I let them read it before I publish it. Maybe it’s being a bit over cautious, but I feel like I owe them a lot more than my readers.
        Alise recently posted..Repost: Who’s the Bully Now?My Profile

    • Oh yes – so, so true. Well said, Ed. And I also resonate with Joy’s desire to ‘run stuff by people’ when they are involved. But sometimes that’s just really hard to do! I wrote a painful post many years ago (that actually put me off of blogging for a long, long time) in which I described the impact of suffering on a family. I used no names, and even took it down after about 12 hours (basically, after I slept on it), but during that time the sufferer’s mom found it and raked me over the coals hard. On the other hand, my boss also read it and thanked me for my heartfelt words. So it’s a fine edge to walk sometimes. I continue to exercise great care when referencing others whose stories overlap my own. and I think sometimes my writing suffers from my caution. Sigh.
      Diana Trautwein recently posted..From the Inside Out: A Guest PostMy Profile

  9. That’s one of the reasons that I started following you, and a few others I’ve come across through Deeper Story. When I started blogging, it was to express what I was going through as I began the journey of recovery from years without caring about God, and feeling distant from Him. Quickly, though, that turned into analyzing texts (which is good, and useful) and expressing what I was learning, not what I was feeling.

    “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” This truth is more profound than I have time, or virtual paper, to express, but allow me this: When Christ died, he was stripped naked, beaten, whipped, tortured, humiliated, shamed, and crucified in front of everyone; this is the death to which He calls us, usually in a different fashion for Americans, but sometimes the exact same throughout the rest of the world. If we’re to say that God heals, what good does it do unless we say the hurt and pain that He heals? If He gives freedom, what good is it without conveying our former, or current, slavery? If He gives life, aren’t our words wasted unless we speak of the death we suffer as He grants us this life?

    Write naked, indeed, because as Christ died naked and was raised to glorified radiance, God may also use naked words to clothe others who are naked, and heal others who are broken.
    Don Sartain recently posted..The Institutes and LonelinessMy Profile

  10. Yes! This is just so true and what I want too! As a new blogger, you and your “naked writing” have inspired me more than you know. It is this very thing that drew me to your writing, and in this new year I want to practice this transparency as I continue to try to find my voice. Thank you for modeling this and for your words in this post. And for staying true to who you are! I am so thankful for you, Joy!

  11. Love this today and finding it to be so true. It takes courage to put your heart out there for others to critique and choose to like or not like. It is hard to not take the comments personally. It is hard to keep going when you are not sure anyone else is listening. But writing like this has become a need in my own life. Part of the very breath I take. Something that reminds me to feel and be and become. Thank you for sharing this with us today.
    Pattyann recently posted..Sabbath Day Scribblings – Seeking ChristMy Profile

  12. “Writing naked” — conjures up all kinds of images… not always flattery in my case.

    Nevertheless, I am still guarded about how much I can express personally. Primarily that is because so much of what I have endured over the past 33 years affects some others, including some who were not even born at the time. Even my post today reflects this inward struggle of how much can I share.

    Thanks for your nakedness, er… openness…
    Rich recently posted..The Post(s) I Couldn’t WriteMy Profile

  13. Thanks for this today, Joy, and for the link to Billy’s article in 2010. This is an ongoing struggle for me and I appreciate your willingness to go to the hard places with such freedom.
    Diana Trautwein recently posted..From the Inside Out: A Guest PostMy Profile

  14. Agghhh, I love your nakedness!

    I had some of the same reasonings for starting my Plank Pulling meme this past spring. Life that’s real is inspiring.
    Jessica recently posted..Why Arguments Happen {A Comic}My Profile

  15. Huh, I’m with you on this. In fact, I didn’t know there was any other kind of writing (at least, when it came to what I wrote myself – can’t control anyone else). In fact, my family has appreciated it and liked the style. However, I did get in a bit of trouble for it on my own blog years ago and just haven’t gotten up the nerve to start again.

    Write Naked is a neat concept. But people can relate more, I believe, to Life Unmasked. Because although hardly anyone would ever go naked in public, we all wear masks in public. So I’d say you’re original choice of title is best.

    Thanks for your e-mail a while back. Yes, our pizza-place conversations would be much more intense and about things that really matter if we could get together and do it today. They would be turning the lights out and escorting us to the door and we probably wouldn’t even notice . . . we’d just keep talking.

    : )

  16. Life Unmasked allows people to connect who maybe aren’t quite ready for all that Write Naked entails. Maybe I speak for myself as much as anyone else. My blog writing has largely been process (about graduate school, theology, living as an expat) and so even when i dipped my toes into more heartfelt posts the real vulnerability lay lurking under a mask. partly, because i wasn’t ‘in practice.’ Learning how to write naked is a journey and the more I do it, the more my writing flows from the heart, rather than through filters of propriety. I know it will make people coming to read a scholar-blog uncomfortable, but i’ve accepted that I need to recognise my agency in forging, shaping, and redefining what it means to be a scholar -blogger, a theologian, a scholar, an artist within the blogosphere. Thankyou for pushing me to get involved with this. This week marked 14 weeks! Can you believe it? Are you planning on continuing it in 2012, because if so, i’m on board!

  17. I want to scream YES at this post. I got lost the beginning of the year trying to write to please but my writing was shallow, lost. I decided if I was going to write it was going to be true, open hearted and at times painful. But this is who I am where my heart is. Some people have complained some people have been negative but I’m going to go with the idea that even a negative comment has made someone think.

    Your writing inspires me, sometimes I feel so alone in my grief that your honesty has brought me so much comfort. It’s not easy is it?

    Never change and never get dressed.

  18. Hi Joy,
    I haven’t joined in with the ‘Life Unmasked’ posts yet but have found that this is the direction my own writing is tending toward. This can be a bit scary as an introvert and when many of my readers know me in real life also. Yet as I get real in writing I find that I get real in life too. I’d love to join the Life Unmasked meme in 2012, and if it were named ‘write naked’ I’d be just as happy.
    Mike McArthur recently posted..From angst to adorationMy Profile

  19. I agree! I try to write naked or as naked as I can without upsetting things within my home. I think there can be a time where we can reveal too much. I think the reason reality tv is so popular is because we are so curious how others live. Am I normal? I’d like to be more naked in some of the things that I deal with in life but my husband would not be okay with me sharing some things so I don’t write about them. That’s where I think we can get off track and do damage to our own families if we’re not careful and reveal more than our spouse is comfortable. And sometimes there are blogs I read and I truly feel badly for the children because their lives have been laid open for the world to read and see. Someday we have to answer to those children and there may be things in their lives they didn’t want shared. I’m going to be speaking several times in 2012 at women’s retreats about our insecurities and how when we’re real with each other, it brings us together because that’s what those hard experiences are for.
    Mel @ Trailing After God recently posted..When We Run On EmptyMy Profile

  20. I agree. Honesty is the only thing that connects people, that makes us feel not so alone anymore. I constantly fight with the tension of writing honestly without exposing myself just for the sake of exposing, because a woman’s heart is too precious/fragile to put out there like an object. Also, I care deeply about protecting the privacy of my friends and family; I want them to know that what happens in real time/space is safe from the worlds’ eyes in cyberspace.
    To me, motivation makes the difference. Do I write to expose OR communicate? To express myself OR connect? Neither is mutually exclusive, but asking the question helps clarify it for myself.
    Anita recently posted..Hello world!My Profile

  21. Thank you for this post. This is my first visit to Life:Unmasked, but it will certainly not be the last. Your frankness is refreshing. I look forward to reading more in the coming New Year!

  22. Thank you. This is my first visit to Life:Unmasked but it will certainly not be the last. Your frankness is refreshing. I look forward to reading more in the coming New Year!
    Naomi Smith recently posted..OrionMy Profile

  23. Holy Spaghetti–I took your advice/suggestion/not-so-gentle-nudge–and went and read the “Writing Naked” post first. Am I ever glad I did that. Thank you! Then I came back and read more of your heart … Thank you for this. Thank you for your commitment to authenticity and no-pat answers. I shared Bill’s post with our writers and I’m off to share yours too.

    On a personal note, after 12 years of wearing a school uniform, for years clothes became a way for me to express creativity. Now I’m ready to get NAKED!
    idelette recently posted..TGIF: That Time I (Kind of) Wanted a Boob JobMy Profile

  24. I agree that the best writing is done when you strip away all the layers you have put on. Unfortunatly I recently discovered that people in HR found my blog and am afraid that even though I write nothing about work, that being open about my emotional struggles will be used against me (as it has been used against others).

Trackbacks

  1. […] myself to them. (Here is where I will throw out a quick thank you to Joy for encouraging me to write naked)   I doubted my ability to minister to others…… I mean, how does one positively […]

  2. […] link-up in which we gather to step out from behind our masks a little, get real, and maybe even try to write naked. We take Jesus seriously when He teaches that His love is unconditional, and we know that […]

  3. […] forward to sharing some of my struggles, questions, and failures. And this blog has to be the most naked I’ve written in quite some […]

  4. […] talks about writing naked. It’s not as bad as it sounds…or is […]

  5. […] their domestic lives in the midst of their creative pursuits. I was also challenged by Joy’s recent post reflecting on Billy Coffey’s thoughts on ‘naked writing.’ It got me thinking […]

  6. […] I’m featuring an anonymous guest post I received a couple of weeks ago. It is one of the most bare pieces of writing I’ve read in awhile. I have the deepest respect for this woman, awed that in spite of the […]

  7. […] Wednesdays, I host the Life:Unmasked link-up, where we write naked, sharing the real, imperfect life we’re living. If you’ve written a bare-all post in the […]

  8. […] Wednesdays, I host the Life:Unmasked link-up, where we write naked, sharing the real, imperfect life we’re living. If you’ve written a bare-all post in the last […]

  9. […] I host a link-up for anyone willing to step away from the pretense that all is well, who will take off their mask with me, and write naked. Being real about our hard days has tremendous capacity to encourage others in their hard days. […]

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  11. […] you write a Life:Unmasked post this week? Link up here! (Read more here.) Please include a link back to this post in your post and visit at least two of the other posts […]