[Body, Mind & Spirit] How To Unlock Your Truth

Last week I made my annual trip to Claremont, CA, to teach my Write Where You Are Workshop at Camp Scripps, a four-day summer camp run by and for alumnae of Scripps College. I handed out three pages of prompts, lines gleaned from Nancy Levin’s poetry collection, Writing For My Life. A volunteer read them aloud and people circled the prompts they felt a visceral response to. Some of the most popular were:


• There must be something deeply wrong with me.

• One day soon I will stand fully revealed.

• Don’t ever assume that the end of the storm won’t reveal the most exquisite sunrise you have ever seen.

• What if getting out is as simple as going in?

• Most mornings I wake while everyone else is still sleeping.

• I must want life more than comfort in any given moment.


My instructions were simple: “Don’t think, write. As fast as you can.”


We scribbled, nonstop, for thirty minutes. When the timer went off, one woman clutched her notebook to her chest and said, “I am going to hide this—or better yet—destroy it!”


Knowing that sometimes the most reluctant participants share the brightest gems, I turned to her and said, “If I had to bet, I’d say you’ve written something very much worth sharing. Would you like to read it?”


She turned red. “I didn’t know we were going to have to read what we wrote.”


“You don’t have to,” I said, “but in my experience, the more we don’t want to share what we’ve written, the more liberating the process can be. Bearing witness to our life experiences is a profound, sacred, and healing act.”


The woman read what she’d written and it was great. She had no idea anyone would care about her marriage, health, and finances. But her writing was closely observed, loaded with details, and her voice was magnanimous and wise. The fact that she had no clue she’d written something wonderful, along with her reluctance to share and her desire to destroy what she’d written, provided valuable lessons.


Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of the improper behavior, incompetence, etc. of oneself or another.” For writers, telling the truth can feel like improper behavior. Many of us were raised jumping through hoops trying to please others. As smart, sensitive children we knew what to say to satisfy those around us, even if that meant betraying ourselves.  As mature women engaged in the act of truth-telling it can feel like we’re breaking rules. It goes against our “good-girl” conditioning, and this creates feelings of shame, which makes it hard to write the truth.


But people have a deep need to voice their truth, to see it, witness it, write and speak about it. Doing so affirms our existence. This is a major reason why we read: to see our lives mirrored back to us. It’s also the case that the personal is universal, especially when closely observed, without judgment. I remind students that just because they write something, it doesn’t mean they’re going to share it with the world. At least not right away. Years may stretch between the moment you write something and its publishing debut, especially if you’re writing a book. The point is, you get to choose what, how, and when to share with others. The main thing is to share first with yourself. Giving yourself permission to speak your truth in the privacy of your own room is a crucial first step toward creative self-expression and healing.


At a deeper level, resistance to sharing may reflect a lack of respect for yourself, or an inability to honor yourself. It’s often a clue that you’re judging yourself. We humans do all sorts of things we’re not proud of. But can we forgive ourselves? Can we accept and learn from our circumstances? Can we allow ourselves to be who, what, and where we are? Can we accept our darkness as well as our light? The ability to be honest about our less-than-glamorous selves, to expose our vulnerability and fear—and share it—is a virtue. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “Your strengths are your weaknesses, and your weaknesses are your strengths.”


In order to write, and then share, your innermost truths, you have to make peace with them. This is a life-affirming process, which involves laying down your shame. If you can set it aside, if you can accept your life the way it is, with humility, curiosity, and wonder, you’ll experience deep radiance, which will warm you from the inside out. You will also become a beacon for others yearning to do the same.


We are imperfect creatures, perfect in our imperfection, but most important, we are here to learn. When you turn toward what you perceive as your weaknesses you exhibit great strength. This is where your creative power lies. This is your treasure, your gift, and your truth.


I’d love to hear about your relationship with shame and how it’s impacted your writing life. Also, please share how you unlock your truth. Or challenges you’ve faced (and perhaps overcome) while doing so!



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  • Elizabeth Welles: I love what you've written here, especially the first paragraph which reflects your experience as a journal-writing teacher! I absolutely agree with what you've said, and appreciate the beautiful way you've said it! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom. I'm so sorry for your loss. 

    Charlene Diane Jones: For me the "therapy" part of writing is step one of many, many steps. My focus in this post was getting to one's truth, unlocking it. Transforming that truth into a work of literary art is another matter. I totally understand what you mean when you say sometimes your stuff isn't ready for public display and needs to linger a while in darkness. But eventually, one way or another, it needs to see some light!

    RYCJ: I know what you mean and I share your passion! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Jean LeBlanc: Wow! Based on what you've shared I'd love to work with you. Would love to have you in one of my classes. Here's why: I adore helping people reach and express their feelings through writing. Yes, this is harder for men, who have been raised to not show emotion. It's beautiful to work with men and see what happens when they access deep emotions in writing. Love that! Most writers, both sexes, write shallow, unlikeable characters at first. Male or female, it takes skill, craft, practice, and patience to write fully-formed, lovable characters. 

    SomerEmpress: I like that line about writing filling you up and emptying you out all at once; very cool. That said, I also believe that when we're plugged into our process and listening deeply, it's more energizing than depleting. At least that's what I've seen with my work and with the work of my students and clients. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Judy Archer: Your story sounds amazing and I'd like to read it! Personally, I'd like to hear about your father's suicide attempts, because they seem relevant to your story, but obviously it's up to you. The main thing is that you're exploring it for YOURSELF. That's great. Your book will be better for it, even if you end up leaving that part out. Your perspective will be larger and your writing will go deeper for having done this inner work! Let me know when your book is published! As you probably already know, you don't need to decide  this now. Just keep doing your work, and eventually the answer will become clear. 

    Susan Holck: I love what you write about judgment. The trick, I think, is to release the judgments we have against ourselves, to free ourselves of our own judgments. Thank so much for sharing!

  • Jill Jepson: Thanks for reading and commenting. Love to you and yours.

  • Jill Jepson

    Thank you for this beautiful, insightful post, Bella.

  • Elizabeth Welles

    Beautiful! So beautifully said! Thank you.

    As a journaling teacher for over three decades, I’ve found that the very act of writing and then reading aloud to hear our own voices and words, or to let others hear our voices and words, drops us into a listening, reflective-contemplative mode wherein we are received. Received by Self and then another. We discover that we are not alone in suffering, and that our words can bring wisdom, solace or counsel to another. Reading our words aloud and then listening into the silence that follows can unearth revelatory insights for one’s life and its direction. It gives us the nourishment and courage to just be. And then when we feel restored, we are able to return to our world renewed, offering wisdom through our very pores and breath.

    There are also ways to take strong raw cathartic writing and recreate them for a public audience. One way is through fiction. I've authored a number of monologues and one-woman shows that have emotional truths and "real" details in them, often adding a bit of humor or a character's voice. It both honors the pain and shines a light on it in a way that the audience is uplifted. It makes the personal universal and a kind of healing occurs.

    I live with and watch over one of my parents. Then my best friend died less than three weeks ago. I write a lot. Words that will find their ways into characters already created and characters yet to be born. Characters who will more elegantly express the screaming gut wrenching vulnerability of grief and impending doom, who will have the power to do so in a way that lightens perspective, so another may find fresh inspiration or a simple appreciation for life in all its variant colors.

    Thank you for a great article. And thank you for all the great comments that followed. Nurturing and wise, one and all!


  • So many thoughts trawling through in response to this sensitive and lovely article. As a therapist, I truly appreciate the sensitivity shown about revealing in a trustworthy environment. The article also seems to stay in the therapy model of writing and one of my questions is about the process of writing. Sometimes, my stuff is just not ready for public display not because of shame or fear or any emotion but because creatively it needs to stay in the dark for a bit longer. Louise Von Franz indicated the difference between depression as a pathology and depression as a response to being a creative person. I think the same applies here. 

  • RYCJ Revising

    This is simply beautiful. Not that I insatiably seek reading memoirs chocked full of reckless secrets (for lack of a better phrase), but I do have a big penchant for reading stories as described. It's not too common that many go to this place and lay their soul down in a book, which makes it a dig for me finding these stories, without having to read my own work.

  • Jean LeBlanc

    Something I learned from professional speakers... don't tell your personal story to an audience until you have completely dealt with it, i.e., accepted it and overcome the emotions attached to it, got it in perspective... etc. Writing memoir for personal therapy certainly works, but until you have stowed the baggage, it might not work well to put the writing out for public consumption... that may be why many memoirs come out so long after the events... appropriately so in my judgement...

    As you say
    "In order to write, and then share, your innermost truths, you have to make peace with them."

    An issue I have in my own writing is getting to my feelings about events... women seem much more able to express feelings, and provide this value in writing, than men... thus memoir by men tends to focus on the action plot and memoir by women tends to focus on the emotional plot... I have difficulty writing the emotional plot because I'm not sure what, if anything, I was feeling... people who have critiqued my stories say the narrator seems shallow and unlikeable... well, yeah, duh, that's the point... my story is about a man who evolved and learned to be worthy of a woman's love... working title "Short Stories From My Long Life As A Jerk." My goal is to give hope to men and women who deal with men... 

  • Avril Somerville

    Ah! Writing without censor, healing without limits. Goes back to the writing is/as therapy belief, but the process of writing your truth is so liberating and exhausting all at once. Fills you up and empties you out all at once. #WriteOn

  • Judy Archer

    Thanks for sharing. I have been sitting at a crossroads for sometime- whether to include my stories about my father’s suicide attempts and his suicide some years later, along with the stories of my five female ancestors, some going back to the 1800’s, all in a memoir. I was looking for the flawed males that may have been precursors to my father’s suicide and was heartened to find several very interesting women.

    Whether I share it or not in my final draft, I feel freer inside, exploring in writing the impact of sensing at age seventeen that it was simply a matter of time before my father finally succeeded in taking his own life. 

  • Susan Holck

    Writing the truth is often hard.  But along with that, in my experience, is the fear that our writing isn't "good enough" to share with others. Yes, we may be able to dig down closer to our real truths, even our shame (which is one of the hardest things to write about, I think.) But fear of judgement by others of our writing itself can also lead to paralysis.  Yet, as you suggest in your post, I have been amazed at the quality of what comes out when I am told to write non-stop without editing or overthinking it (things I tend to do too much.) I think it's crap while I'm writing it, but when I read it, I find some gems there. Thanks for this post!

  • Jane Hanser

    Thank you, Bella.

  • Jane Hanser: Very good points, Jane Hanser. Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your wisdom!

  • Cate Warren: Thank you for sharing this amazing story. Your comments are always so thoughtful—blog posts in their own right!

  • Jane Hanser

    I think that there is a difference between a person making peace with things he's felt ashamed of, and telling everybody deeply personal things to a larger and more impersonal group of people he's just met. Some things may be appropriate to share with a spouse, a therapist, a social worker, a close friend, a physician, and then draw a line, a boundary. Maybe over time that boundary changes, as a person feels safer, or as circumstances require. I think that it's important to have boundaries in life. And there are times to share. I know people who go to NA or AA meetings and remain silent the entire time. They're not ready to share. Maybe they're not ready because they're still not trusting that they won't be judged. There can be many reasons. And the group will respect that. They've at least gotten themselves to the meeting. It's important to deal with deep emotional conflicts, feelings that keep us from living fulfilled lives or from realizing our potential, but a person has to be in control of that process, and that means what he shares and when he shares it.  As a writer, I can choose what I bring to the public's attention, what remains within a boundary, or what a character will express, or how a character will manifest a particular conflict. As a writing teacher, I have often given students several choices for a topic and they can choose which one to write on.