Ever read a passage and the hairs on your forearms stand on end? Have you ever lingered towards the end of a page in a book because the words speak of something more than the ink and paper could ever muster? Have you caught yourself on the brink of tears while scrolling down the page on your phone in public places?
That last one. I’ve been there. I’ve sat on the bus reading a post about this or that and then the truth comes flying at me faster than a rhinoceros on heat. One writer particularly responsible for inflicting this damage on me is Max Dubinsky. He writes with heart.
Bo Bruce sung with heart. The words meant something, they were not just lyrics serving a purpose, demonstrating her vocal range, or an excuse to strut around the stage. They were wordsthat became her own, even though they were written by Kate Bush, “If only I could, I’d make a deal with God, and I’d get him to swap our places.” They were words that brought tears to eyes, brought the crowd to their feet and left the coaches’ acclamations short of words. If you are not aware, Bo Bruce is a contestant on The Voice, and whose mother is in hospital with pancreatic cancer.
The song mattered because it conveyed something that she was feeling deep inside to an audience of millions. Songs at their very best travel along a current of notes and melodies and bring meaning to words that reflect our highest joys and deepest sadness.
If you’ve ever heard me sing, you may think I’m experiencing some excruciating pain, and my vocal tones tend also to operate as a form of torture on others. So I don’t express myself through singing, at least not publicly, but the depth of meaning words can convey remains the same. The writing that matters most for me reflects this same mentality. Words can educate, and they can entertain. But they can also speak from the heart, they can convey meaning that is locked inside. These words, they can transform. They can turn a life inside out.
There are different types of writing, when I write about reform of the House of Lords, my goal isn’t to bare my soul. Sometimes information is the purpose of the words; sometimes the art is to get the reader to read the words without even realising they’ve been reading. The little bits of text on websites that get you hooked, the copy for adverts that draw you in before the lights turn green.
But good, heartfelt writing, is not just about emotions and the present struggles you’re wrestling with. Although he courted controversy with his comments about Mary Beard being too ugly for television, AA Gill is a fantastic writer; his profile of London for the New York Times shows magnificently how a reader can be drawn into an essentially factual piece.
When I write I generally have two rules. Write with integrity and don’t hold back. There’s no point writing heart-achingly brilliant words if they are not an honest representation of who you are or the situation you are in. You’ve got to be honest.
But also, and as part of this, bare your soul. Or as it’s sometimes put: write naked:
There is no greater fear than to face a blank page. It mocks and threatens. It challenges you. Give it power, and it will eat you alive. Face it clothed, and you will fail. The only way to beat the blank page is to attack it naked.
Literally, in the buff? No, but this isn’t a joke either. You can’t come to the page trying to impress. You can’t rely on the artistry of alliteration or the musicality of metaphor. It’s no good scouring the thesaurus for the most impressive words if you’ve not got the courage to say what you mean.
If you’re writing about things that matter, show that they matter. If it’s love that’s on your mind don’t make it a dry mechanical thing. If there’s pain behind the words don’t be afraid of a few tears.
A great model of this writing comes from Joy Bennett who started the Life:unmasked blog meme which encourages writers to take down the masks and be real with each other. If you write for yourself, then write as you please. But if you write for others, then be honest and open with them.