In the book Young Poet’s Primer, Gwendolyn Brooks advises, “In writing your poem, tell the truth as you know it. Tell your truth. Don’t try to sugar it up. Don’t force your poem to be nice or proper or normal or happy if it does not want to be. Remember that poetry is life distilled and that life is not always nice or proper or normal or happy or smooth or even-edged.”

As Maria Popova writes in her piece, this “advice applies as much to poetry as it does to all art and even to the art of living.” I agree. To me Brooks’s advice speaks to how we force ourselves to feel emotions we don’t feel, to adhere to expectations that are unreasonably high or meaningless to us (but are important to someone else). It speaks to how we force ourselves to be who we are not.

We think we should be happy, so we bury our sadness deep inside our hearts, where no one can see. And we fake a smile.

We think we shouldn’t be afraid, because clearly fear and anxiety mean we’re weak and wrong. So we stay ashamed. We bash ourselves for not being confident! bold! fearless!

We think we should be able to do everything without any help. So we isolate ourselves and go without resources that could actually be transformative.

We pursue productivity and efficiency so we can earn stars on our self-worth charts. But we feel empty and rushed. We squeeze ourselves into labels or boxes we don’t belong. And we feel like we’re going through the motions.

We gloss over complicated emotions and contradictory thoughts. We don’t say what we really mean. We yearn for straight lines, smooth paths. We yearn for one or the other, black or white, all or nothing. We yearn for spotless homes, spotless hearts.

Life is messy. And fittingly the best writing reflects this mess and helps us to make sense of it. If you’re feeling uninspired with your days, if you’re feeling like you’re performing or if you’re feeling stuck with any kind of creative project, and you’re not sure how to proceed, try the truth. Try working with your own rhythms, traits, likes, loves. Try identifying what you really want.

Try answering these questions for yourself: What am I sugaring up in my project? What am I sugaring up in my life? What do I need to be honest about? What am I forcing? What “shoulds” am I trying to adhere to? Who am I trying to be?

Poignant writing is honest writing. Writing that doesn’t pretend. Writing that doesn’t apologize. Sometimes, this writing is ragged, raw, rough. Sometimes, life is, too. It’s funny that the key to living life well is also the key to powerful creative work: sincere and simple truth.

Photo by Josh Calabrese.