I was born into a kind, caring family, raised in a small town where you couldn’t go to the grocery store without knowing at least five people. (Suzy! Jimmy! Tommy! Mary! Mr. Musacchio!) Kind social pleasantries were a way of life. And while that is all well and good (and a hell of a lot better than some of the intense awfulness that children can experience in this world), I had a drive toward emotional truth that prevented me from fully appreciating my participation in those pleasantries. I was less interested in what was being said, and more interested in what wasn’t being said.
Long before I was able to identify that drive for truth, I spent a lot of time in my imagination. And in my imagination, there was always a beat of truth in the heart of the play. My Christmas list every year read, “Dear Santa, I would like my driver’s license, please.” (Always polite.) And I was genuinely convinced that in some way, for some reason (cue imagination), I was going to be granted my driver’s license before the requisite age of 16. I never dreamed of anything that wasn’t at least slightly possible. I didn’t imagine becoming a fairy princess in a far off land with a dragon as my protector. I dreamed, instead, of rescuing a close family member of the President of the United States and being awarded with my driver’s license at the totally astute age of seven. In reality, it’s completely unlikely this would happen (and to be honest, I have a heard time even saying that), but it could happen. Sadly it did not, but this was my early training in believing wholeheartedly in my imagination. In a lot of ways, these playful scenarios were more real than the pleasant grocery store greetings.
After college, I moved to Los Angeles and began attending the (prestigious, thank you very much) acting school, Playhouse West. This was where I got my first taste of exchanging emotional truth with peers in real life—not just in my imagination. The experience was intense. Soul-squeezing, gut-wrenching intense. It required listening for whispered expressions of human truth, breathing in those whispers, then breathing back out my own honest reaction, no matter how subtle or bold. If we expressed anything less than honesty, if we slipped into “acting” or “thinking” rather than “being” and “expressing,” we were stopped in our tracks, called on the fake or contrived expression, and told to get off the stage and sit down. That training demanded such emotional truth from me that I left sobbing from my deepest, darkest places on several occasions because I was so emotionally open. And I loved it.
Later when I moved to New York, I felt a deep sense of connection to the city. Which was a bit odd to the outside viewer, I imagine, given that I grew up in such a small town, but to me, something strummed inside of me and I felt at home. I began my job at CNN and within hours of my arrival, I dove headfirst into that corporate routine of pleasant coffee room conversation: “Hi, how are you?” “Good, thanks, how are you?” “Good. Okay, see ya.” “Take care.” But there was one girl in the mix who didn’t exchange smiles in the hallway, didn’t make coffee room small talk, didn’t emote anything she didn’t intend to emote. I thought, God, this girl is kind of awful. In my head, I dubbed her Mean Girl. Then early one morning, I stepped into the elevator and there she was. The two of us rode up twenty-something floors together in silence then finally I said to her, “I like your tights,” (they featured some fun geometric pattern) and she replied with her tone as indifferent as the look on her face, “Thanks. They smell like feet and vagina.”
In that instant, I adored her. The truthful words were like candy for my spirit and we became friends. She was brave in her expression (likely without knowing it), candid, and blunt without being mean (contrary to my initial perception), or further, without caring if she was perceived as mean. There was a freedom and inherent hilarity in her expression, which I knew to be that thing I adore: emotional honesty. And, like New York itself, something resonated with me on that day, something that strummed a sense of home within me.
Stephen King said, “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.” How do you do this? Well, I can’t—with any confident honesty—tell you how to do this, but I can tell you how I strive for honesty in my writing. I listen. It’s something I know I’m good at. I listen, I feel, I pay attention, and then I communicate (write) what I experience. But before I’m able to do all of that, I first—and this is crucial—have to be open to that level of honesty inside of myself before I can play in the sandbox with anyone else—real or fictional. I must practice the same intense level of honesty within myself, well before I can expect to be in tune with the honesty of my work. Basically, I have to be able to call bullshit on myself before I can call bullshit on anything I create.
When I recognize those moments of honesty in my writing, I relish that they required little to no effort from the thinking mind or any sort of plotted, pre-determined reaction (which can be spotted by even a slightly discerning reader), and rather that they required me to inhale with all of my senses, then exhale my honest interpretation of the situation, the scene, the story. That is my job, and I must be able to call bullshit when necessary. (Trust me, it’s necessary.) On the flip side, I also must be able to spot truth when I see it.
Each afternoon, after wrapping up my writing for the day, I head out into nature with my puppy. As we walk—avoiding as many bugs, bears, and reptiles as possible—I spend time letting my mind catch up with whatever I’ve created that day. What interests me is not, is this new situation carrying the plot forward? Did those scenes make sense as part of the whole? That will all be answered after I finish the first draft and begin working through the second. What matters most to me is, did I pay attention to the truth? And did I express that truth? If not, it’s okay. I’ll keep going, keep writing the next day, and will go back and work with whatever strand of truth I can unravel during that second draft.
Like anything else, expressing honestly is a process, a muscle that must be recognized and exercised. It’s also my job. In order to do my job, I must make sure to remember at least this one thing: always pay attention to my character’s (and my own) feet and vagina.