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Leave Your Heart in the Writing: A How-to

July 11, 2024


by Lee Martin, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty



I begin with this famous quote from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I start here because I often read technically proficient pieces that don’t resonate because the writers haven’t left any parts of their hearts in them, and I want to think about how I can help us all be more willing to risk feeling something in our writing.


We must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is to say, we can’t veer away from the truth. No matter our genre, we should be writing to unearth as many layers of truth as possible. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” True sentences come in the form of accurate observations, getting the facts right and depicting the details others might miss, but they also come in the form of honest admission—an opening of the heart, if you will.


In creative nonfiction, we directly address our quirks, foibles, and flaws. In fiction, we do the same only through the guise of invented characters and plots. Sometimes we’re afraid of what others will think of us if we admit our shortcomings. The wonderful CNF writer Silas Hansen, in a recent Brevity craft essay, writes about the importance of writing ourselves the way we really are. He recalls an undergraduate professor once telling him to stop trying to come across as a good person in his writing. “Stop trying to make me like you,” the professor said. “I’m not the admissions office. I’m not your grandmother.” Trying too hard to impress our readers with our goodness, our nobility, etc. leads us to write sentences that don’t vibrate with the truth. We must be honest when we look at ourselves. As Silas says later in his craft essay, “Sometimes the part of me that needs to speak in an essay are the parts I don’t like very much, or the parts I’m afraid to let people see.” Exactly. We feel more as writers when we reveal more.


So, how do we do that? It’s not a bad idea to take an inventory of our less than better moments: our regrets, our sins, our grievances, our guilt. We should also inventory our quirks and flaws. All of these things make us human—a little rough around the edges just the way we all are. When we do these inventories, we start to feel deeply. We remember anger, pain, grief, and, yes even joy. We look at our idiosyncrasies. We regret again what we did or said, or maybe didn’t do or didn’t say. We practice empathy for ourselves and others.


When I was a freshman in high school, a girl who sat behind me in World History put a note on my desk. I felt it touch my elbow. This girl wasn’t a popular girl. In fact, she was quite odd. At the time, I couldn’t imagine the courage it must have taken for her to write that note. I had the ignorance of the young, concerned only with myself. I was a new student in this school, eager to fit in. I couldn’t risk accepting that note. I wasn’t brave enough, so I used my elbow to knock the note to the floor. I heard the girl shifting her weight in her desk, and I knew she was leaning over to retrieve what I’d lacked the courage to accept. As the class went on and the bell finally rang and I was able to gather up my books and escape, I tried to forget what had happened. I never could. It stays with me to this day. Even now, I feel a welling up of emotion when I think of how self-centered and unkind I was. I imagine the girl working up the courage to write whatever she wanted to say to me and how humiliated she must have been when I rejected her. I don’t know where she is now or whether she remembers this incident. If I did know, I’d tell her how sorry I am. I’d ask her to forgive me.


I used that incident in the title story of my first collection, The Least You Need to Know. No one who read it knew it was true, but I did. I wrote from my feelings of shame, regret, and, yes, admiration for this girl who was braver than I.


I recently shared this story with a group of writers in West Virginia, and I invited them to recall some of their own regrettable moments, the ones that still haunted them. Then I led them through this writing activity designed to help them write about troubled times.


  1. Recall a troubled period from your life. (Of course, you could also do this for an invented character in a piece of fiction).

  2. Highlight a specific object that you associate with this time of your or a character’s life. An apple, a bottle of Scotch, spittlebugs, loose change—these were some of the objects that came up when I led this writing activity in West Virginia. Let the object lead you to a memory of a specific event that happened during this troubled time.

  3. Give some brief context of the trouble (e.g. “I was struggling with addiction,” or “On the night my father died”). Then let the story unfold with a particular emphasis on the object. Describe it and the place it had during this time. Associate it with other things. I remember a water jug I carried to my first paid job, detasseling corn, and the way my mother would fill it and have it ready for me each morning. I think of the biblical story of Rebekah at the well offering water to those in need. I remember my mother, after mowing the grass in a dress, washing grass clippings from her legs, her feet in a dishpan of water. I also recall the water bucket we kept on our kitchen counter (we had no running water) and how cold the well water was when I drank from the dipper.

  4. Let the object and its associations take you through the story you have to tell while also taking you down through the layers of your own character, or that of an invented character, as you consider how a detail can evolve into a metaphor if you pay attention to the associations.

All forms of writing are ways of thinking out loud on a page. Sometimes we think through stories, but sometimes we think through leaps and associations as images accrete. Start with something like a water jug and see where it might take you. Lower the discomfort by absolving yourself of writing directly of the troubled time. Tell yourself you’re only writing about a water jug, or an apple, or some loose coins on a tabletop. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote. Indeed.



Lee Martin is the author of six novels, including The Glassmaker’s Wife and The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He has also published four memoirs and two short story collections, most recently The Mutual UFO Network, in addition to the craft book, Telling Stories.


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