3 Steps to Uncovering Your Simple Truths
To Stand Out, Try Simplicity
Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.
I've always loved this Lou Reed quote. It reminds me that the stories in my head just don't cut it, that if I want them to count, they've got to hit the page and come alive for people other than myself.
It also reminds me that the work is important, and hard. There's an element of expression, as an act, that is sort of like giving birth: you've got to give into it and see it through.
But if expression were really as hard as giving birth, would Lou Reed have made 20 solo albums (and so much more)? I think not.
The man had big aspirations. He once told an interviewer that what he strove for, in terms of his music, was to connect intimately with his listeners:
You could really get their attention and really take them someplace. You're joining the voice in their head with your voice - there's no one else there.
Expression is risky and challenging, but if there is a payoff, this is it.
So how does one hold on to such a standard and be prolific too? For Lou Reed, the strategy was simplicity, but also honesty. He didn't rely on fancy musicianship or big words. He preferred two or three chord songs, and the truth (sometimes the hard truth) of his own life.
If you hold a high standard for yourself and your writing, try Reed’s approach. Strip your writing bare to make your truth stand out. Here’s how you can do that, in three steps:
State your truth, straight-up. Whether you’re writing a novel, article, song, or essay…try to distill what you want to say into one sentence that includes the critical who, what and why of your story. So if you’re Lou Reed writing something as raw as 1967’s Heroin, your focus statement probably looks something like this:
I shoot up because when the drug begins to flow, I really don’t care anymore.
An extreme example, perhaps, but powerful in its honesty and simplicity.
It’s worth mentioning that the focus statement is a big part of journalism - radio journalism in particular (my first love). There are many varied and valid approaches to the focus statement, which can be easily explored on Google. The critical bit is to keep it short and nail down what you really want to say.
Figure out how you hide as a writer. As in speech, there are word or phrases that we may use regularly (and sometimes too regularly) to avoid getting straight to the point. Or you might be using that language to highlight aspects of yourself or your story you are more comfortable with. Try to decide when those phrases/words are actually necessary and limit your use of them.
Don’t just know your facts, check your facts. If you are writing about your area of expertise, or your own life, it might be easy to assume you know what happened. You might be right, for the most part, but there will always be grey areas and part of the story that deserve more clarity. Be willing to delve into these, and double-check your own truths. By carrying out this exercise, you are likely to find new perspectives and uncover unexpected layers of your story. At worst, you will have put in time that will inevitably pay off when your readers and critics start asking you questions.
Yes, this all takes work and effort, but a lifetime? No.
Just get your words on the page, and know that your story, your truth, is worth the effort.
Meribeth Deen is a writer, coach and makes up half of the Writer's Compass. She passionately believes in the power of writing and storytelling, and loves helping emerging writers find their voice and deliver it to the world.