I write naked. As often as possible.
With a naked heart, that is.
When my first novel hit shelves and I read its initial feedback, I learned readers are savvy. They read between the lines and uncover nuggets. On occasion, they will discover things you, the writer, didn’t even know existed in your story!
Before I tell my protagonists’ stories, I create their biographies and conduct interviews with them. I dig into their psyches and draw up memories from their childhoods. I get to know them as individuals. You and I respond to circumstances based on our backgrounds and past experiences. Our perceptions drive much of what we do. Characters behave the same way. Some of my protagonists’ biographical details appear in my novels; others guide my protagonists as they make decisions, but are not explained on the page.
So my readers surprised me when they identified traits that appeared in my planning materials but never appeared word-for-word on the pages. I learned I could plant little details for my readers to discover.
I have a strong analytical side. Because my natural inclination is to explain the why behind the what, I needed to develop a trust in my readers. Flat-out explanations are not always necessary. Readers recognize symbolism. They possess the ability to recognize synapses and close the gaps. They enjoy closing those gaps.
They also recognize when an author “phones it in.” They can tell when the framework exists but the characters lack souls.
In other words, readers possess radar for insincerity. Likewise, they detect genuine words that come from the heart.
Which brings me back to the writing naked thing.
Readers want to escape into our characters’ worlds. They want to understand the character, to feel what he or she feels. They want the author to lead them into the deepest, darkest recesses of that character’s mind and heart. They want to know the secrets that lurk within his or her soul.
As a novelist, I believe in establishing a contract with my readers: If you’re willing to invest your time with my characters, I’m willing to invest my heart in telling their stories.
The only way I can expose a character that way is to peel back the layers of my heart and make myself vulnerable. That means dropping my guard, releasing the fears of how I will look or whether readers will suspect my novels are autobiographical. If I want my readers to get lost in my novels, I need to get lost in those novels as I write. I need to write with a naked heart.
My latest novel, Between These Walls, provides an excellent example. Its protagonist, Hunter Carlisle, is a Christian. He’s also gay. That second characteristic marks his biggest secret and his wellspring of torment since childhood. Between These Walls captures his journey as he reconciles his sexual identity in light of his faith. In order to expose Hunter’s fears, insecurities and joys, I needed to quiet myself as a writer and let my heart beat in time with Hunter’s. From my soul, I needed to take up residence in his heart and observe him in his secret moments. When Hunter spent time worshipping God, I captured his gratitude. When he wondered whether one mistake could lead him to hell, I captured his mental image of writhing in isolation. And when his sexual urges took root in his solitary moments, I captured the desire, the gritty fight, and the exhaustion he endured, moment by moment.
I challenged myself to write in a fearless manner. No doubt, various individuals will question my motives in writing the book. They will wonder if any of the novel’s events occurred in my personal life. And I won’t have an opportunity to respond. But I’m a writer. I have a job to do.
If we aim to connect our hearts to those of our readers, writing will involve sacrifice. It requires us to reject any fear of what others might think. It means stepping into territory that makes us uncomfortable, revealing things we would never incorporate into an ordinary conversation.
In other words, writing naked.
John Herrick is the author of From the Dead and 8 Reasons Your Life Matters. A graduate of the University of Missouri—Columbia, readers turn to him as a chronicler of spiritual journey and the human heart. Herrick lives in St. Louis.
John’s latest novel is Between These Walls.
For more information on John:
· Visit his website at www.JohnHerrick.net
· Read his blog at johnherricknet.blogspot.com