Real Writing, Rough or Polished?

Coal&diamondAuthenticity is a big issue for lifestory and memoir writers and daunting to consider. Which is better and more authentic, those first rough drafts, or stories you’ve polished to a flawless sheen? After wrestling with this question for a seeming century, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are both authentic and real.

A family example

My mother began writing her autobiography late in her life, and her health failed before she finished. After her death, I pulled a thick folder of drafts and notes into a coherent, unpolished, story that gives a comprehensive picture of her life before she met my father. I shudder to think how much would have been lost if she’d spent time polishing!

My father is the opposite. He polishes every word. His stories are magnificent, and we have a dozen of his hundreds.

If you focus on facts and creating a legacy of history, rough works. If you focus on art, polish matters. In my opinion, both are authentic. Rough reflects honest effort to connect. Polish reflects dedication to order and esthetics.

Rough serves well to convey passion and spontaneity. In an earlier post, “Stories Around the World,” I wrote about, a site rich with real stories from everywhere. I keep going back. Raspy rawness in those rough outpourings moves me intensely. Strong emotional connection clings like a cocklebur.

Polish slides smoothly into my heart with incisive focus. Poetry may fly over my head, but lyrical phrases in poems or prose resonate within me like fine crystal bowls.

Both work. The key to the power in either case is to write from your heart. No hedging, no hiding. If you are going to write it, write it! The message I get from raw writing is that those people trust their message enough to put it out there “as it is,” messiness, and all. Like poetry, not all messy stories work, but heartfelt stories transcend messiness.

Polished writing clarifies and refines the message. Many find joy in finessing a phrase with robust writing skills. We want to tie silken word ribbons around readers’ hearts. We study, seek feedback from multiple sources, and practice until fingers and minds grow numb.

Raw writing gets memories out where they can be seen, shared, and analyzed. Polishing stories develops insight and refines your view of the world. Investing the effort to grow as a writer delights readers and shows your dedication in developing your gift.

Lumps of raw coal provide warmth, power and comfort. Diamonds delight. In the end, I see it much like the difference between Sunday singers’ heartfelt hymns and operatic arias. Each has a purpose and place, and each appeals to different tastes.

Based on my family example, if you must choose, and you have any descendants, I urge you to focus on rough quantity first. After you’ve assembled that legacy, be creative. Edit and polish to your heart’s content.

Write now: read stories on, paying close attention to how they affect you. What elements do you most strongly connect with? How can you tap into that power in your writing? Pay back the pot by leaving a simple story of your own for the global tribe.


Sherrey Meyer said...

Well, I have at least one thing on Kathy -- I do know what a cocklebur is! Loved this post, Sharon, giving heart to the rough writings we find among the memories of past generations. Some of my mother's history that is a part of my memoir was found in a spiral notebook in which she had written a rough history of her life. Unfortunately, it was to a point shy of her life after my father's death in 1973. But at least I have that! I too love the polish and sheen of my finished products, but I often reread drafts and think of the realness (is that a word?) I find there.

Sharon said...

Kathy, glad you got the message, and may it stick with you like a cocklebur. Perhaps cockleburs are a western thing. They are little round seedpods completely surrounded by viciously sharp hooks that grab and hold nearly anything textured, from socks and shoelaces to dog's coats.

Sharon said...

Yes Sherrey, it can be a challenge to retain the realness (that word works for me) through multiple rounds of editing. I guess it's sort of like wood finishes. Oil finishes or sheer color glazes showcase and enhance wood grain. Paint obscures the wood, but may enhance the shape and result in a lovely object. Neither is "better," just different. IMO, paint is reserved for fiction.