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Rus VanWestervelt and Authentic Writing

February 27, 2011

I’ve got a few secrets to share with you. Some of them you will absolutely devour with delight and, perhaps, even blush a little at the fact you hadn’t figured them out for yourself long ago. They will clear the path of most of the debris that’s been keeping you from writing authentically all these years.

The other secrets, though (and we’re talking one or two at best), will trigger other feelings entirely. You may resist, deny, or even strike back at first. That’s understandable. After all, we don’t break through brick walls with plastic hammers and toy drills, now, do we? At first, we look at those walls and see them as permanent, impenetrable, perhaps even necessary to keep us on that other path, the safe one that keeps us poised comfortably in our lives to just get by.

As good as you might feel about learning those first secrets (and you will feel very good), there are few words to describe the freedom, courage, and confidence that you will experience when you break down those final walls and begin to write authentically.

All this from the comfort of your favorite chair, or leaning against your favorite tree in the back yard, or sipping your made-to-order latte at your neighborhood cafe.

Not too bad, huh?

I have been writing authentically since I was 12 or 13, when I first wrote personal essays on love and the necessity of embracing life fully. I wrote in daybooks and diaries, on napkins and matchbook covers, at all hours of the day. I let nothing stop me from capturing my life—and the way life interacted with me–in words.

These days, I’m doing whatever I can to unlock those secrets in writers and “non”-writers of all ages. After I received my MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in lovely Downtown Towson, MD USA (my hometown as well), I took to the streets with pen and daybook in hand, teaching memoir, personal essay, reportage, and immersion journalism to anybody who thought they had a story to tell.

And that, friends, is just about every one of us.

So here’s the first secret. Are you ready?

You never have to share a single word you write. Ever. With anyone.

That’s right. YOU are in control of who sees your words. Just because you write something down, it doesn’t mean the world is going to judge you, condemn you, or even spit at you. The world will never have to know that you even put pen to paper. The writing you do is for your eyes only.

So until we meet again, try this. First: Treat yourself to a book devoted totally to your words. Maybe a small book that fits in the back of your pocket, or a large blank book with 200 pages is more your style. It doesn’t matter at all, as long as it fits you, and as long as it is dedicated solely to your words. No shopping lists, no course work, no notes to others about the fridge shutting down and the ice cream melting on the bottom shelf. This is Your book. Your words. Your rules. Your eyes.

Second: Write every day. A little something about you. It doesn’t matter how long or how deep. Just write. Start with a favorite color. Beverage. Store. Pair of socks. It makes no difference. Just write, and know that no one else on the entire planet will ever read these words unless you let them. I’ve decided to share my daily writing (at least some of it) in my blog, which you can read at Remember, though: this is what I choose to share! I’ve got daybooks stashed in every pocket, glove compartment and bookshelf available and at the ready for a thought, entry, or rant.

Time to get that book and get writing. (And shhhhh! I won’t tell anybody if you don’t!) Good luck, and feel free to email me directly at with any questions as you begin your new and authentic journey!

  1. February 27, 2011 5:16 am

    living authentically and writing authentically – hand in hand – but so few of us realise its importance, or if we do – achieve it for very long..

    thanks for the kick and reminders – a perfect introductory post to our site. Welcome aboard

  2. February 27, 2011 6:55 am

    Thanks, Annie–I’m glad that you pointed out that even when we do realize its importance, it’s another thing entirely to hang on to that realization for any sustained period.
    That’s why, I think at least, it’s important for all writers at all levels to go back to the well and dig deeply for those authentic writing jaunts without worrying what the world might think.
    Thanks again!

  3. February 27, 2011 12:47 pm

    This is a lesson I think I need beaten into my skull!

    I used to write “just for me” with no intention of anyone else ever seeing it. Then it changed and over the years it became more of a blend of writing for me as well as to entertain others. Eventually it got to where I find myself stuck these days: I spend a lot of time giving up on an idea because I decide no one else will like it. The pendulum has started to switch back again and I’m allowing “unusable” ideas to still get written in my little book, never to see the light of day again. But it will take time to get all of this back into balance.

    As with all things, I think success comes from balance. Realizing the balance is off is a start, but doing something about it is proving to be much harder, at least for me.

  4. February 27, 2011 3:52 pm

    That is a really important thing for writers to remember, that no one HAS to see your work. It keeps it personal and intimate. For me it applies because I have a lot of anxiety when I’m working on a WIP over whether or not my agent/editor will like the finished work — from there my mind jumps to, “Is it even worth writing?” Then I remember why I started doing this in the first place, because I love writing. And the reason my agent and editor support me? Because they love that I love writing, and they appreciate my individuality. So I just remember that what I’m writing is for me, and people will love it or hate it, keep it or toss it because it’s particular to me. At the end of the day, it’s all mine (she says greedily). 🙂

  5. February 27, 2011 5:22 pm

    Three years ago I chose ‘authenticity’ as the first of my yearly themes… when I gave up on lists of goals and focused on trying to bring to life something which was important to me. The year of authenticity was the year I made writing a priority, got myself networked in with a bunch of writers (many of whom are still close writing colleagues and more importantly, trusted friends and business associates).

    I think when we live authentically, we allow ourselves the freedom to write authentically. It is a timely reminder to me to make sure all areas of my life are congruent with being authentic. My yearly theme this year is ‘passion’ – it is what ends up driving everything in my life.

    To play Devil’s advocate – I still need the input, trust and enthusiasm of others to get my writing over the line. I wrote in isolation for more than ten years and it was a time of stagnation, fear and eventually I just stopped writing all together. So I believe there needs to be a balance of private writing space and also a trusted and safe space to share your work. Just from my own perspective.

    Now to get out that little book and scibble – because momentum begets momentum and I am determined to keep on rolling this year.

  6. Angela Vann permalink
    February 27, 2011 8:09 pm

    As always your messages come at the perfect time Rus. I appreciate your willingness to share and not let us reluctant writers give up on ourselves. Swapping out the daybook that ended up as a year’s worth of shopping lists and pulling out a new one dedicated to authentic writing.

    I needed the reminder! It feels good, really good to write again.

  7. February 27, 2011 8:12 pm

    I’m with Cayla–it’s wonderful to consider that writing doesn’t have to be for an agent or publisher. It’s experienced nicely as a hobby–like bowling or stamp collecting. The joy is stretching the brain, putting on paper what others put on canvas.

    Haven’t said that, it is nice to be validated, too!

  8. February 27, 2011 9:14 pm

    I think the comments really bring home the necessity of balance–have work circulating all the time, but don’t get so focused on the publishing that you forget to take those other risks in your daybook. I often refer to Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” as a nice regimen, but we need to be careful, as well, not to blur the various purposes of the daybook.

    We write to cleanse, to explore, to take risks, to understand, to communicate, to persuade, to enlighten, to educate. The only question is: who will we choose to be our audience?

    Sometimes, that decision shifts with a good (or bad!) sleep… I trust our inner instincts, that we will know when the time is right to share, and with whom.

  9. February 28, 2011 12:23 am

    Rus – morning pages have been an on again, off again part of my writing life for more than three years now. I credit JC and the committment to writing morning pages with the huge shift in my life back at the end of 2007 and the return to writing.

    I’ve always been pedantic though and never included morning pages in any daily word count. I think I need to stop being so serious (especially now life is so busy editing and producing books) and just enough the process of putting words on the page. I never stop loving morning pages… it is just the intial pain and frustration of getting back into the ritualistic use of them and finding the space in the day for them. Life is ALWAYS better when I’m writing morning pages.

    I know I’m going to love having you herewriting with us Rus and feel very privledged to have you in my pod of writers.

  10. March 5, 2011 3:06 am

    Our writing group here in Dole gives the same ‘instruction’ to all newcomers. Feel free to write or not to write. “Feel free to read or not to read what you’ve written to others.” As you say, it’s you in control. That’s important.
    Thanks for this intro. I didn’t know you before but I’m sure we can all profit from your experience.

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