There is a fine line between writing for yourself and writing for your audience. Writing something consumable is necessary to sell books, but at what point do we choose our audience over being honest with ourselves as we fill page after page with words? I was being interviewed recently by a reporter from Sweden about my book, The Cross in the Closet. She asked me why I had chosen to include details in the manuscript that might put-off my perspective audience inside the religious main stream. Specifically she cited the instances of alcohol use, smoking, and things considered off-putting to religious readers.
Her questions got me thinking, how much honesty am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of my readers?
The easy alternative would have been to tone down the real life details and to make my writing more suitable for the audience whose worldview I wished to challenge. The easy alternative would have been to tell the story and put my audience into sterile frame of mind. That way I could speak to the issues without offending their sensibilities. The easy alternative...
Well I didn't choose the easy alternative, so I'll share a few thoughts with those wrestling with the same issue and hopefully give a more direct answer than I did with the journalist from the Swedish newspaper.
I should provide a little background.
For most of my life I've lived inside the bubble of religious conservatism. I dressed how I was expected to dress, spoke the way I was expected to speak, and I did my best to hide any hint of messiness from my life. My freshman year of college I attended Liberty University. Two weeks before the spring semester ended a hall-mate and I decided to take an after curfew joyride in my then girlfriends car, and to smoke cigars and eat at an all night diner, and well, to live like the college students we had always dreamed of becoming. We felt caged by the militaristic and pharisaical code of conduct that, if violated, carried stiff penalties for us as students. To be caught smoking, or leaving after curfew, would result in cash fines, suspension, or even expulsion. That night, we just couldn't care.
My friend and I ate at the diner, smoked our cigars, and returned to the campus with full bellies and clothes smelling of cheap smoke. While walking back to my dorm on East Campus, an interesting thing happened. I warned my friend to keep his voice down, so we wouldn't get caught, and his response was to scream at the top of his lungs. Not only did he scream, but he began painting the air with the most brilliant string of profanity my innocent Christian ears had ever heard.
"Come on Tim, do it! Just let it all out..." His face was serious, and I was inspired by him.
So I screamed... I yelled the most ridiculous combination of curse words my sheltered mind could come up with. And it felt great. For a moment I was flying above the campus and I was, albeit in an immature show of rebellion, speaking honestly for the first time all year.
We didn't get caught, if you care to know, and while almost a decade has passed since that night and as I find myself elbow deep writing a new book, I keep realizing that something inside me is still so worried about not offending anyone, that I end up losing sight of myself and the very words that are inside of me. I look in the mirror when I catch myself doing this and I can't help but feel shame. I write to be free, not to chain myself to another person's ideals. So I've made a resolution. Every time I feel afraid to say something in my writing, I'm going to include it shamelessly. I'm going to proudly accept that I am a Christian and an author, but I am not a Christian Author. I am going to allow myself the opportunity to document things as they are, and not as people want to see them because in the end to God or by karma, I'll be forced to answer for the decisions I've made. I'm okay with that.
As I get older I feel a deep connection to Kerouac's character, Sal Paradise, in On The Road. Sal is never the one in the room while Dean lives his life between the sheets, but he is a seemingly voyeuristic witness into a grittier side of life. He sits, propped against that wall with a notebook in one hand and a cigarette in another, and he allows people to be who they are, suspending judgment because that really is his only option. I wrote the things I did, and said the things I said, not to be "edgy" or to endear myself to my more secular audience. I included those details because while I am okay with people tossing my books across the room because their sensibilities have been offended, I could never be content sterilizing something that can never be made sterile... Life.
Write what scares you, my friends. Write what scares you.
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