Are You Afraid to Tell the Truth?

Walden on WheelsI am a reader of memoirs. I love them as much as I adore good fiction. I love the way great memoirists unflinchingly bare themselves to us, showing the good and the bad, the admirable moments and the shameful ones.

I just finished reading an unusual memoir (Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas) which is already one of my favorites for many reasons, the primary one being the author’s honesty. In the book, he takes the reader along as he ventures outside his comfort zone, violates societal norms, faces his own limits, stares down his demons and accomplishes some major personal victories. He shares his thinking all along the way, oftentimes a bit immature or selfish or unenlightened, and brings us with him as his perspectives mature and blossom. He lets us in, even as he knows he might be saying things that alienate us. He tells the truth, awkward and unpleasant as it sometimes is, and I came to admire his story for what it was: a journey. He didn’t have to be perfect all along the way; the point was that he learned and he grew and in essence, he came of age right there in front of our eyes.

We would not have the privilege of reading such powerful works without authors who are unafraid of telling the truth.

In your blogging, in your Twittering and Facebooking, in your novel-writing and your memoir-writing and your non-fiction writing… what if you were able to let go of your need to show the world only your best side? Your shiny, polished and edited side? What if you were to tell the truth about your humanness — those moments of selfishness and greed, those flashes of insecurity, the envy that overtakes you at odd moments? What if you were able to portray the world as it really is?

Here’s an exercise: Go through your Twitter or Facebook posts from the last few weeks. For every one of them that presents a positive picture of your life, think of something else that was going on at that time — something hard, something unflattering, something you’d never share with the world — and write it up in “post” form. Now look at your real posts and these new, not-so-shiny ones. Does it present a more accurate picture of real life? Is it, in fact, even more interesting than the endless succession of my-life-is-awesome updates?

Now think about how to incorporate this knowledge into your writing — all your writing, whether it’s social media or blogging or books. Try to identify moments in which you are tempted to portray a whitewashed version of the world or your character or your self. Is there a more honest way to say it?

You open yourself up to judgment or unfair criticism, to be sure. You risk alienating people who simply can’t accept reality and humanness in all of its flawed messiness. But isn’t it worth it, to be able to tell the truth?

The deeper you dig down, the more you refuse to sugarcoat — the better you will resonate with your readers. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing escapist romance novels or serious parenting manuals or daily Facebook posts. Tell the truth, and people will listen.

Is there an area of your writing in which you want to focus on being more authentic? What are some examples of terrific, honest writing you’ve admired in the past?

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  1. Lily says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. It’s kind of crazy, but this is something that God has been speaking to me about SO much lately! Being real, transparent, honest and unafraid of showing people the real me. Instead of the edited, whitewashed, as you put it, version of me. It’s amazing how many times I’ve stumbled across this message lately, and it is speaking straight to my heart! I recently decided to start blogging seriously, so your advice is very timely… thank you again!

  2. LOL, sometimes I feel opposite. That I’m a big huge downer at times! I do think there is a balance to this… there is a TON of value in being real and honest. But by nature, my REAL self also searches manically for silver linings, to find the good buried deep in the bad, to search for hope. It can be a misnomer to say the being real has to highlight the negative or bad spots. Sometimes being real is looking at a big picture and seeing the beauty that God can and has brought out of the not-so-stellar parts in life. Again, there is this fabulous balance between the two. I teeter between each on a day-to-day basis!!!

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Great point, Krista! Being real is simply being real, regardless of what that looks like.

  3. Marilyn Yocum says:

    “Is it, in fact, even more interesting than the endless succession of my-life-is-awesome updates?”

    It takes courage to bring one’s writing abilities to bear on the parts we’d prefer nobody sees, but that’s where readers truly connect. It’s freeing for both writer and reader. Love this post!

  4. I’m going to print this one out and read it over and over again … on the Greyhound bus from the She Speaks Conference.

  5. Crystal Walton says:

    This holds such an interesting dynamic. I think sometimes we shy away from vocalizing our broken moments because they can come out sounding sour. Depressing even. And we want to avoid the whole “misery loves company” scene. So, maybe it comes down to how we share it. People are drawn to candid honesty–it’s something they can connect with, relate to. But they find inspiration when we go on to share what lies past that brokenness. I try to be as authentic and transparent as I can in my blogs, but always with the purpose of sharing what I’m learning in that place of pain in hopes it will inspire my readers in their own journeys. You’re absolutely right. It’s risky, costly. You open yourself up to critique, judgement. I haven’t been afraid people would criticize my honesty. More that they would be indifferent to it.

  6. James Scott Bell says:

    I’m not sure there really is an “accurate picture of real life.” We filter everything through our perceptions, even our flaws. I think the role of the artist is to take that raw material and shape it for a purpose. So in fiction, for example, one ought to explore the dark corners, yes, but then decide how to best use that material with all the tools of craft.

    When it comes to social media, the key word, of course, is “social.” How do you act in society? How SHOULD you act in society? Simple advice: don’t post anything that would cause a large swath of right-thinking people to avoid you like a bad smell. Filter even your “honest” opinions through that gauze.

  7. I loved this post and I completely agree. It’s only when we share that real side, that gray side — the insecurities, imperfections, and pressures — that we can connect. Sunny perfectionism is intimidating both in real life and in fiction. I am so delighted to see so many interesting, tough, real and dynamic stories coming out of CBA too — it’s an exciting time to share our faith, the real, 3D struggles that accompany it and the freedom it offers. Thank you very much, Rachelle….Katherine

  8. Cherry Odelberg says:

    I needed this.
    Oh, to find the balance between whining and being always negative; and sugar-coating and being always positive. A long time ago there was a TV program called, “Love American Style.” In one episode, the characters decided to always tell the truth – that is – tell ALL the truth. That is not nice either. The reader does not need the whole unabridged, unfiltered truth (literary or verbal vomit). Perhaps the key here is to “share thinking,” and growth?

  9. Dan Erickson says:

    I often share the stuff people are uncomfortable with, especially in my books. You can’t candy coat topics like cults, abuse, and paranoia. My first book “A Train Called Forgiveness” looks at these topics head on. The second book “At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy” look the truth of divorce, mental illness, and fear in the eye. I’m currently working on the third book. I think good writers are the ones who dare to tell the truth about themselves and others no matter the outcome.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Sounds like your writing is very real, Dan. Why would you even WANT to candy-coat that stuff? Thank you for daring to tell the truth.

      • Dan Erickson says:

        “Candy coat” might be the wrong term. I think some might use understatement, though, in fear of offending readers.

      • JosephPote says:

        I’ve read Dan’s first book, “A Train Called Forgiveness.” It is very raw and very real. Excellent writing that draws the reader to FEEL the pain and confusion of a child rasied in an abusive cult, as well as the working out of grace and mercy through years of gradual healing.

  10. JeanneTakenaka says:

    Being truthful, good or bad, is always something I strive toward. I confess, after reading many times how we need to keep things upbeat on my Facebook posts, and how much of what I share on Twitter should be promoting others, I struggle with being real sometimes in those venues. On my blog, it’s a little easier. As I prepare my post for this week, I’m going to be thinking about your words here. Thank you for sharing this, Rachelle. Your words, and other comments, show how to be real in an effective way, so to speak.

  11. Tricia Robertson says:

    Thank you, Rachelle. Your post confirms what I’ve been learning in Tribe Writers with Jeff Goins. Writing that resonates with others is authentic. It is not necessarily negative or positive, just raw and real. You’re right, we often sugarcoat but what others can relate to is the daily down-in-the-trenches stuff of life. I’ve found when I tell true stories from the heart, people respond. Honest writing can trigger memories or morals in readers even when the author does not attempt to convey a message. The meaning can be different for each reader based on his or her own experience. We like to know we are not alone, that others go through similar trials and come out on the other side, often becoming stronger in the end.

  12. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

    Two thoughts – relating mainly to short format like FB

    First, there’s often a fine line between sharing and shocking. I can, and have shared the fact that I have PTSD, but to describe on FB some of the things that haunt me would serve no purpose. I don’t have the desire to make random people realize that the Geneva Convention’s largely a myth – and I do not have that right.

    There is an obvious difference in putting this sort of material into a memoir or article. There, the reader has a choice to open the book – but posting it as a FB status kind of takes advantage of an unwarned audience. It’s disrespectful, and can be cruel.

    The second point is related to the filter James Scott Bell mentioned in his comment, but from a slightly different angle. The events of our lives, are interpreted through a layer of backstory that’s simply hard to explain in short format.

    If you remember the file “The Hurt Locker”, there’s a scene close to the end where the EOD tech is home from his latest deployment, and shopping with his wife. He’s been asked to pick up a box of cereal, and is shown standing in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed by the colors, the quantity, the variety. He finally grabs a box and fairly runs out.

    If you’ve grown to know the character, you can identify with the dichotomy of his two lives that’s shredding him at that moment. If not – if you walked in for that scene – he’s just a guy who doesn’t like to shop.

    So much is interpretation – the teller choosing how to tell, and the observer having the information needed for an accurate observation.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Wonderful insights, Andrew. Thank you!

    • JosephPote says:

      Great insights, Andrew…as usual…

    • Lynda says:

      Very well said. My husband and I both have severe PTSD. His was caused by combat when he was a very young US Marine in Vietnam, and mine stems from multiple childhood traumas. In our early days on Facebook, we each learned the hard way about the consequences of posting things that are inappropriate for that forum.

      Now I keep my twitter and FB postings mostly happy and light, while also being honest about our less-than-perfect life. For example, today I posted that last night my hubby brought home a box of Twinkies. By this morning, between my overweight husband, overweight me, and our overweight rescue dog (who also has PTSD), we had eaten the whole box… and the dog was sitting with the empty Twinkie box on her bed, staring at it.

      We 3 put the FUN in dysfunction!

      I’ve started and stopped a number of blogs because I was stymied by how much to say, even when using a pen name. I am currently writing a memoir and this is a tough issue that I struggle with every day. One big question I try to keep in mind when it comes to my writing is: What would Jesus do? (For those who don’t relate to Jesus like I do, it would be appropriate to ask: What would love do?)

      I appreciate the wisdom in this post and in all the comments. I particularly relate to Andrew’s comment. Brilliant!

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

        The picture of you guys taking down the Twinkies is hysterical. I love it!

        I hope you’ll stay with your memoir. You have a lovely ability to paint a word-picture, even in such a limited forum. I think you’ll be able to reach a lot of people, and perhaps change their lives.

  13. Chris Schumerth says:

    Good stuff, thank you. In academic settings, we call this developing a trustworthy persona!

  14. Ginger Voight says:

    Way back in 2004 I started a weight loss blog on AOL. Because the blog meant to serve as my accountability, my goal was to handle it as truthfully as possible. I was (am) the classic “good girl” who never wants to let anyone down. I figured that an audience of strangers would keep me motivated, because nothing is more terrifying than falling on your face for the whole wide world to see.

    As such, this would motivate me to have good things to report, staying on point with my diet and exercise program. Every day I would faithfully document what a good girl I had been. I thought that was how I’d earn those coveted gold stars from the masses and make up for the high crime of being fat.

    But you can’t have a blog based on a commitment to truth without baring it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. It quickly became more than just reporting how I did every day. Every time I sat before that blinking cursor it became an archaeological dig into my soul. Once you make that dedication to complete honesty, it’s inevitable. You unearth yourself, maggots and all.

    Needless to say those posts were the hardest to publish, especially once the blog drew more and more attention. I just knew with every dark, ugly entry I was going to send my burgeoning fan club screaming for the hills. This wasn’t what they signed up for, right? They wanted to see a successful before and after weight loss story, not some bumbling, rambling, tear-soaked, failure-ridden confessional.

    I quickly learned that those opened-soul-white-knuckle posts that detailed my failures more than my successes were what connected me to the audience. When I was real, when I was truthful, I got more support and more love than being “perfect.” I got more comments, I got more followers… in the end I got more respect, even when I expected to be mocked, ridiculed and rejected.

    That was my life lesson as a writer to keep it real. I make most of my confessions from the lips of fictional characters now, and it’s not any easier to hit the “Publish” button.

    But it IS totally worth it. Thanks for reminding me why.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      That is a GREAT story, Ginger. Thanks for telling us. It really highlights how people want you to keep it real.

  15. Heather C Button says:

    I think it’s very interesting. I would also like to point out that some people need to do the opposite. Instead of all the ‘drama’ and negative posts, they also need to show what they’re happy about. Cause sometimes I only hear the bad in the world and it just becomes noise.

    However, I do need to work on this honesty thing. I have a habit of maintaining my professionalism to a fault. It makes my friends feel like they can’t live up to my expectations. So I need to find honesty in my writing again. Thankfully I’ve been playing with my poetry to do it.

  16. Kelly says:

    I agree that we need to be real with ourselves and our audience in our writing. Real people have good days, bad days, flaws and gifts we use each day. Making ourselves vulnerable to be real on our blogs, fb pages, and books is risky and rewarding. I love to read people’s material when I see a real person and not just someone who is perfect all the time.

  17. barbara waite says:

    I wish my grandmother Elsie had read this article 100 years ago before she wrote her diary. She did not know how to “unflinchingly bare herself.” Instead she wrote entries like,” today I heard news worse than death, how can I live with it?” While writing her memoir “Elsie- Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916” I discovered in an old newspaper the answers to this cryptic note and some others. I loved her diary entry of 1913 that told how she and a young cowboy sat on on the banks of Oak Creek and “wrestled with fate for hours and my glasses were broken.” My imagination figured that entry out. She portrayed her life as it was 100 years ago, proper and reserved. Yet her heart shone in her writing and many readers have accepted that that I didn’t have answers to all the mysteries revealed in her diary. Now I am working on the story of Elsie’s years of marriage and discovering I don’t want to sugar coat the depression years and how it touched their lives with sorrow. So I will take your advise continue to dig down deep and portray life as it was. Thanks for the helpful article.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Wow, what a cool story, Barbara. Sounds like Elsie’s truth was evident even if you had to read between the lines. That is definitely one way of speaking the truth! Bless you for being as true as you can to her story.

  18. PK Hrezo says:

    Gosh I love this post. It’s the very reason I stopped reading Facebook.It isn’t real. I think being real (within limits of course) allows others to relate to you and bond with. We all face the same tribulations and it helps to know we’re not alone.
    That being said, it has to be done in a gracious way that doesn’t come off whiny or offensive–and that can be tricky. A bunch of us bloggers hold a monthly post on Insecure Writers Support Group and it’s pretty large–over 200 of us who put our insecurities out there for the world to see. And we’ve really bonded because of it.

  19. Leslie Miller says:

    Powerful post, and one I fully agree with. My most vulnerable blog posts have always been the ones that garnered the most praise.

  20. Jessie Mullins says:

    I remind myself to be honest when I write all the time. I’m writing a YA novel about a girl who was raped on a mission trip, in which part of the story is a faith journey. My aim is not necessarily a Christian audience, and it’s not necessarily a non Christian audience. I try to tell the story in the most honest way, but I can’t help but worry Christian publishers will think it’s not Chritiany enough and non Christian publishers with think it’s too Christiany. I don’t want to water it down for anyone.

  21. Seraph Stein says:

    Wow, this affected me. As an MD, who aspires to be the author of the books my patients read as they wait to see me, I struggle with this. Do I want them to know their Pap smear taking, mammogram ordering doctor is actually a murder-mystery w/ a profound spiritual message writing author?

    After my sister read my first novel, The Deadliest Bouquet, which dissects the ego-driven maniacal mind of an obsessed serial killer, she said… you better use a pen name Nicky… Can your patients handle knowing you wrote this???? Will they still wait three months to see Dr. Nicky Hjort if she can describe such haunting scenes?

    So I did, and now I write under the pen name, Seraph Stein. But am I being honest? Am I declaring, “I am writer” using a false name while attempting to be my most authentic self. Is that paradox blocking the manifestation of my deepest desire and highest purpose? I am not sure. Or does the pen name actually allow me to write more “honestly” the message I came here to share.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Paradoxically, I think your sister is right: you can be MORE honest in your writing if you’re using a pen name. Professional considerations are valid!

  22. janell2rardon says:


    Thanks for this post. It is definitely where I am living. I’ve been wrestling with a book project on mean women in the church. How can I write words that heal, not hurt. About the time I began writing, Kathyrn Stockett’s, “The Help,” was released as a movie. Watching Skeeter’s tenacity, courage, and raw emotions served as a real big kick in the rear. Truth speaks volumes. I hope to find my inner Skeeter and finish what I have started. One thing is certain, I definitely don’t want others “to avoid me like a bad smell.” So, I’m reading all these comments and am going to continue wrestling until I get it right. Thanks for a morning cup of wisdom and truth!

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      That is a hard topic to be totally honest about, isn’t it? Way to go, for tackling it.

  23. Melinda V Inman says:

    Excellent post, Rachelle! You inspire me to quit filtering. I find honest writing inhibited when the thought pops into my head: “What will they think of me?” If I write for the only Audience that matters, if I write to tell the whole truth, to lay down the words on the page that He inspires, and to help and encourage others, I won’t care about the judgment of those who live un-examined lives. Self-reflection tells us we’re all flawed at the core. Other flawed humans are uplifted by musings that provide a more accurate picture of real life and a way out of the darkness.

  24. Carolynnwith2ns says:

    My writing, as an essayist/columnist HAS to be honest, that’s what they pay me for. Years ago my pieces were often much more serious because they were based on general observation and opinion. Now wit oft-times tempers depth; at least that’s what I shoot for.

    Because my audience is local and large, it stretches to the edge of my domain; it is not unusual for me to come face to face with my readers over the broccoli end-cap at the grocery store. I don’t have a problem with that but I am more than me, I am my family; they did not sign on to pick at the scabs of my past. So I write about skinned knees not the infections which take the leg.

    You want honest and authentic, pay me, money soothes embarrassment.

    • Carolynnwith2ns says:

      I just reread my comment…jeez I sound so snooty.
      “Pay me and I’ll be honest”, what a crock.

      Rachelle, I’m a minnow in a mud puddle who tries to be amusing, sometimes I succeed and sometimes my cheeks pink and my family cringes. At least I’m trying. Every single time I post, comment, submit and publish I try to be unafraid and as authentic as I can be.

      Now that’s honest and it’s free.
      BTW you are a voice of reason in this business. I just wanted to tell you that.

  25. Cindy Regnier says:

    I experienced this “truth telling” when I wrote the memoirs for my special needs son who passed away in 2012. Frightening, revealing, honest and true. So hard to let anyone else read my thoughts and feelings. It is almost like a diary – a window to my soul. But on the same note, anyone who has read it is completely enthralled, unable to stop reading, incapable of not caring once they delve into the pages. Rachelle is SO right about this.

  26. Lynn Martin Cowell says:

    One author I think does a super job of this is Lysa TerKeurst. She gets right down in the dirt with you, yet doesn’t stay there. Together, she helps you dig your way out with God’s power and truth.

  27. JosephPote says:

    Great reminder, Rachelle, to keep things real.

    I think this topic can be a very fine line, at times. Yes, I want to be vulnerable, personable, and real. Yet, I don’t want to be unnecessarily controversial, nor to provide inappropriately personal details in a very public forum.

    Every week, it seems, we hear of someone else who has lost their job or brought unwarranted grief on themselves for being a bit too open and/or too personal in their social media posts.

    Just this morning, I read of a newscaster losing her job due to a blog post that her employers deemed inappropriate:

    Thanks for the great post!

  28. LadyJevonnahEllison says:

    Loved this article! To be real and authentic while using wisdom with our words is refreshing. A great example of someone on Twitter who is “himself” is Pastor Rick Warren. Even with the passing of his son, he let’s us know his down moments and how to deal with grief. He reminds us that there is no such thing as a perfect person.

  29. Marie-Therese Hernon says:

    Thank you for the food for thought, Rachelle. My mother told me nobody likes a complainer, so I resist whining too much via social media. I do like it when other people complain a little. I’m highly suspicious of status updates about perfect people and their perfect lives.

  30. Kelly Kuhn says:

    I feel that I reveal my authentic self in my blog, to the extent my husband and children will tolerate. I couldn’t have done that a year or two ago, but when I decided to use my real name in my memoir (while working on my third draft), I realized that I need to be 100% clean if my goal is to help other people be authentic.

    I’m not sure whether I will publish the memoir, but writing it and showing it to my family of origin has been freeing – and that’s what authenticity is all about.

    Thanks for the great post.

  31. Jasmine says:


  32. Peter DeHaan says:

    This is an interesting post and discussion. I now realize I respond differently depending on the audience/medium. In FB and Twitter, I’m always positive. In blog posts, I skew towards the positive. However in my memoirs, my critique group and beta readers have cautioned me scale back some of my more forthright revelations, as in “Are you sure you want to share that?”

  33. Charles R Stubbs says:

    Too true! I prefer to write about characters with flaws that readers can identify with. It also makes for more interesting and unpredictable plots. Sometimes I find my characters take me in directions I never expected them to!

  34. DeeLancaster says:

    I think the key is balance. Victories and struggles can be shared but too much of one or the other is maybe not responsible. Whining is relative to what people can tolerate and ‘poor me’ is different than ‘hey, I’ve experienced this and am working through it the best I can.’ If every post is about your fabulous trip, your kid making the honor roll and your fabulous weight loss success, people will get bored or resentful anyway. Reality is messy, but also beautiful and fascinating.

  35. JoAnne Silvia says:

    My husband and I are writing about the lessons we learned in the years before we found each other again. When I write about staying too long (only a year) in a sick relationship, I risk people thinking: She should have known better! But if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody and I get to share about overcoming that kind of addiction and recovering my self esteem.

    I love Ann Lamott’s writing because she makes me feel not so alone with the worries in my head. I just wish I could be half as I find her to be.

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