The one thing you owe your readers, no matter what you write, is the truth. In nonfiction, this may be adherence to objectivity and use of verified facts. In fiction, it is the truth of the heart, of insight, and of the spirit that matters. Authenticity may be rooted in a few facts, but it is mostly connected to perceiving, recognizing, and communicating with honesty and courage.
Honesty in writing includes honesty with yourself. The things that matter to us and shape our lives are often uncomfortable and even frightening. We have many ways of protecting ourselves from seeing the truth -- mostly by focusing on what we expect or on received wisdom. Even when we recognize unfamiliar or dissonant elements of life, we can keep ourselves safe by false rationalizations, references to exceptions and coincidences, and inappropriate contextualization. If you find yourself explaining away something that didn't fit, it often means a coping mechanism is at work.
And, if your realization upsets the status quo, do you dare to communicate it in a way that could cause you trouble? Do you hide it in the language? Provide safety hatches for readers or escape clauses for yourself?
Now, the writer can make strategic and artistic choices. That's fair. Few writers have entertained or influenced without making their work interesting and appealing. And the needs of the audience. My cousin, writer/comedian Barry Crimmins said comedy and satire allow one to "smuggle in content."But, usually, most of the qualification and framing that allows access to an audience happens in revision. The first draft, in general, must be frank and unapologetic.
At each step along the way, there may be fear. Truth challenges us to move out of our comfort zones and change. And change engenders risk. This is where courage comes in. Anything you write will find opposition. But, when it starkly and clearly provides a fresh -- and accurate -- point of view, people will howl. They will go out of their way to undermine you and your work. On the other hand, it will touch people, defenders will rise, and the work itself will have value to individuals and society.
So how to you become more honest? Sometimes, you analyze an important point and find your way to the logical conclusion, careful to use (and not misuse) your critical thinking skills. I usually carry a question or theme in my head. Humility absorbed years of thought. The questions "what is hope?" has been a longtime companion. These fill up pages, require reading, and demand fresh examples from daily life. They are a lot of work.
The easier route for me is to make quick, unedited notes on what catches my attention or moves me emotionally in conversations, in calm moments, and in dreams. Necessarily, these must be complete so the observation is clear and accessible later on. The results and embarrassing, flat-footed, redundant, and never to be shared, but I take them all seriously -- even when I don't want to.
I try not to let these go by explaining them away. I look for the unexpected context that will make them resonate -- and often will make them more disturbing. This is when they begin to turn into story.
At this point, my craft could fail me or I might lose my nerve. But, if I continue with honesty and have the courage to complete the work, I'll have something that evokes strong emotion for me (and, I hope, for readers). And that will bring the truth into the light.