What I Write Is 75% True and 25% What I Want to Be True
It took me years to focus my writing.
Now, and for the foreseeable future, I riff on personal finance, investing, and a handful of subjects — some inextricably linked, others loosely related — to my money core.
I settled on this handful of topics because I’m best equipped to write about them from personal experience.
Writers often talk about “being vulnerable” and writing from personal experience. But exactly what does it mean? And where does truth, as it collides with storytelling, fit into the mix?
In this article, I argue that you have a responsibility to the reader, but it’s not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all of the time.
Bruce Springsteen likes to say he has been having a conversation with his audience for the last 45 years. In a recent interview with Apple Music, Springsteen offered insight into the stories he tells in his music. One thing stood out apropos to the matter at hand.
Bruce said the characters he grew up around populate his narrative alongside bits and pieces of autobiographical material. The rest comes from Springsteen’s imagination. When you write, you’re figuring out who you are and relaying what you know in that particular moment in time. Sometimes, you use your writing to vision possibilities, alternatives, and where you want to end up.
I try to take a similar approach to writing less important non-fiction articles for the internet.
You don’t have an obligation to tell the truth
If you believe you have a responsibility to be 100% truthful with your audience, you’ll run the risk of stifling your creativity.
Truth — my experience doing life — roots a majority of the writing ideas I come up with. When I generate an idea, I outline its empirical elements. Then, I let my imagination run wild. Or at least I try to.
Sometimes nothing happens. The idea doesn’t turn into an article. Often, it becomes an article that contains nothing but objective fact and, usually, clearly-defined opinion based on my knowledge and experience.
When my mind productively wanders, my imagination takes the reality I introduced and thinks of directions it can go in. For example, I write about “financial flexibility,” however I am not yet financially flexible. So I often vision what it might look like when I get there. I haven’t experienced it on the ground. But it can be a useful exercise — for the writer and reader — to make concrete ideas you haven’t yet fully experienced.
Your life probably isn’t that exciting
I don’t believe for a second that the authors who pour their deepest fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, and failures onto the page in multiple articles a day or even week are telling the truth in every passage. Especially the most prolific of the bunch. It’s not possible. Nobody’s life is that exciting or full of drama.
It’s closer to melodrama. And that’s exactly what it should be. Great storytellers create melodrama that isn’t cheesy or exploitative. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. It evokes emotion. It instructs, but with humility. It leaves the door open for interpretation and eventual manifestations of reality.
Once I have collected facts about my life and experience I intend to use in an article, I ask myself, “what would be an awesome progression or ending to the story as I know it and have lived it to today?”
Use the 75/25 rule
This is how I organize a significant number of my articles.
I amass the facts and fact-based opinion— from my life and knowledge, and, objectively, via research, the news, the experts, and other sources. This can comprise roughly 75% of any given article.
The remaining 25% extends the story and tells a story. It helps me figure out who I am, where I might want to go, and how I might go about getting there. This dynamic influences, if not directly impacts my personal growth as well as my writing.
It generates additional article ideas in myriad ways. Mostly, because as you consider the unknown — where your life might head — you shape your personal experience. The things you vision, even if you haven’t lived them yet, help compose your personal experience. As you continue to write in a hybrid of fact and imagination, your story powers forward advancing your place in the world as well as your work.
Sometimes, I flip the 75/25 rule, mixing 25 percent fact and fact-based opinion with 75% imagination-based storytelling.
I could never be a pure fiction writer. I just don’t have this talent. However, taking a blended approach to what is, at its core, non-fiction writing helps make it more exciting. I also feel like it helps serve the reader. It puts a creative approach to relatively boring subject matter in front of them. This helps set my work — and the work of people who approach writing about money similarly to the way I do — apart.
This certainly reads theoretical, if not downright touchy-feely. But I believe in approaching writing the way Springsteen — and other great songwriters — approach music, particularly storytelling via lyrics.
If you think deeply about how you’re doing something, with specificity, you’ll have a better chance of standing out. It’s not simply about putting yourself out there and being vulnerable. That can come off as phony, self-serving, and disingenuous. It’s about crafting a thoughtful approach that maximizes the utility and effectiveness of the righteous goal of writing from personal experience.