Knowing the Field: Navigating your Truth in Writing
What happens when your truth offends your reader? As authors, how do we deal with audience consideration while maintaining alignment with our truth and purpose for expression?
These are some of the questions that arise regularly in my book coaching work with authors.
One of my current clients is working on a memoir. We’re deep in workshopping mode, which means that bi-weekly she sends me a chapter of her book-in-progress, I review it, and we hop on a call to dive deeper.
A few passages in this chapter gave me pause. When I read for a book coaching client, I am present to and monitoring many elements of their writing. One thing I do is read as if I’m the author’s intended audience, and consider the objections, agreements, emotions, and other reactions they may have as they read.
In this chapter, my client was exposing her vulnerable inner landscape around an experience that challenged her fundamental beliefs and ideas. She was also bravely entering tender and highly politicized territory—around gender identity— expressing values and opinions that may not align with those of her intended audience.
Getting to the truth of your experiences and sharing them with others is about the most vulnerable thing you can do; and it’s what makes memoir rich and engaging. It’s essential, yet no small task for any human daring to bear their soul on paper.
While this authentic truth telling is so incredibly valuable, we also have to balance it with a consideration of our audiences. Because we aren’t writing in a vacuum– the effects we have through our writing are real and they matter.
How do you stay authentic and aligned with your perspective, purpose and truth while also considering others’ reaction to your writing? And the consequences of that reaction?
I love this quote by Non-Violent Communication teacher Miki Kashtan:
"It’s not my job to prevent others from reacting to me. It’s only my job to act with integrity, which also includes caring for the impact."
I like how Kashtan distinguishes between responsibility and care. We’re not responsible for managing our audience’s reaction to our truths, but we should act in integrity and with care about the impact our words might have. It’s a subtle but important distinction. I call this act of caring about and considering the impact of your message Knowing the Field.
Knowing the Field
Knowing the Field is the process of becoming aware of our message’s potential effects on our reader and making grounded decisions about how and what we express. These decisions are grounded in our consideration of three elements:
What we imagine our audience’s reaction could be; or what our audience’s reaction actually is (if we have beta-readers for example, who read our drafts prior to publishing)
Our intended purpose in a section
Our alignment with our own creativity, truth and integrity.
Let me give you two examples of how this might look: one from my client and one from my experience writing Birth Your Story.
When my client and I spoke, I genuinely acknowledged and honored her honesty in this chapter. I also noted my concern that some passages might have an undesirable effect on some readers— causing them to disagree with her opinions and get distracted away from the storyline. At worst, I worried, they might stop reading before they got to the place of better understanding her perspective.
We had a paradox on our hands. On one hand, it was vital that she express what was actually true for her in the story she was recounting. On the other hand, we needed to be sensitive to audience objections because having readers turn off and stop reading is not our desired impact as authors.
We talked about how to write in alignment with her truth AND maintain good graces with her audience. Our solution was to add some detail about the contributing factors to her perspective so that her audience could have a better understanding of where she was coming from— to be able to empathize with her point of view (even if they didn’t share her sentiments). We also explored how she could strengthen the end of the chapter to show how she grew in a challenging and affronting situation, because that was relatable and showed character growth, good for the ethos.
In making these minor but important adjustments, she was able to maintain the expression of her own personal truth AND mitigate the chances of offending her audience to the point of turning them off.
The point of “knowing the field” isn’t to make sure you never offend or evoke strong emotions in your audience. It’s about carefully considering the potential impact of your writing so that you can make wise decisions about how you want to express yourself and what effect that may have.
And you might decide to keep more provocative or controversial elements of expression in your writing. You might be willing to offend for the sake of aligning with your truth. This, by the way, is what makes so many truth tellers total badasses: they dare to speak their honest truth regardless of outcome.
Writing a book is not meant to be a please-all-people endeavor as much as it is a tell-my-truth-with-integrity sort of mission. Telling the truth with integrity requires that we consider all possible factors and outcomes as we navigate our narrative boats into a potential storm.
This brings me to my next example, an experience I had with my book.
Birth Your Story
In Birth Your Story, I write about the cultural narrative of birth: the ideas and perspectives about birth that are imposed on us through our media, culture, and kin, which invariably influence our expectations and experiences of birth-giving.
In the original draft, I very cheekily set out what I believed was the cultural narrative of birth. Things like “you’re supposed to breastfeed and have that go easily” and “you’re supposed to labor with the support of your partner, who took the classes and knows all the things to support you perfectly,” and “you’re supposed to be able to birth according to your birth plan.” I believed I was offering an accurate snapshot of what our dominant culture tells us about birth, though I neither agreed with nor wanted to perpetuate this dominant narrative.
Every one of my beta readers—mostly birth professionals who have dedicated their careers to dismantling disempowering aspects of the dominant birth narrative— had an intense emotional reaction to the snapshot I’d presented.
Each reader came to me wanting to debate the veracity of my claims and the politics of birth. So I had to check myself. I still held true to the picture I’d painted. And I wasn’t afraid to challenge my readers. But I had to consider my impact. The effects of my writing were not matching my purpose for the section.
My purpose in the section was to invite readers to consider how the dominant birth narrative—however they defined it—influenced their birth experience. My purpose was not to wade into birth politics to advocate for my specific views and values.
In fact, I’d written my book in an intentionally apolitical way because my overall purpose was to make the book inclusive to all parents, regardless of their beliefs, births or backgrounds.
If I was writing a treatise on the way birth SHOULD be in our culture, I’d be willing to make politicized arguments about the dominant messaging around birth. But it was neither the time nor the place for that.
Through coming to “Know the field” more completely, I realized it wasn’t important that my reader know or agree with my perspective on the cultural birth narrative, but rather that they become clearly aware of their own perspectives.
I replaced my view of the cultural narrative with a series of reflection questions that would help my audience locate, acknowledge and clarify their views. And I double checked with myself to make sure I was still in integrity with my own truth in this section, which I was. I felt good about the changes I’d made.
This is Knowing the Field. You take all factors into consideration and use your deep consideration of context to make conscious decisions around your expression. You load up the scales—on one side your truth, desired message, integrity and purpose; and, on the other side, your audience’s potential responses—and you do your best to navigate it all with the utmost awareness and integrity. And it isn’t about pitting one side against the other, but rather seeing how they all play together so you can consciously direct the course of action.
In my coaching, I encourage writers to express their unadulterated truths first, and consider the impact of their truths on others second. We must have safe places to tell the truth about our lives— and writing is one of the most sacred of these places. So often simply telling the truth about our own experiences to ourselves is a radical world-wobbling act. But it is so vital to our souls. And we must protect it with the fierceness of a mammal mama.
And yet, our communication through books is interpersonal, so we ripple out from our experience to the experience of others, we come to care about our impact, and we make wise choices based on deep and careful consideration. And we don’t have to barter our souls away in the process. We get to find that place where our truth, our purpose, and our care for others work in harmony. That is the sweet spot.
Having someone to work through this process of knowing the field and finding the sweet spot with is worth its weight in gold. If you’re ready to feel more supported in your writing process, let’s hop on a call and talk about it.