On Finding the Courage to Write

On Finding the Courage to Write

By Kimberly Phinney

I’ve been thinking a lot lately—as if that’s something new… Anyway, I’ve been thinking about writing and what exactly it is that makes the writers I love so great. Why do they get under my skin? How do they get me to carry them around in my heart pocket, as if they have actually pulled up a seat at my breakfast table to sip on offensively strong coffee with me? How did they become the oldest friend I never met? Or more, my guru?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I write these very words… as I write my novel for grad school and publication… as I compose vignettes or poems… I think about it as I lift my lens to my eye at a photo shoot (because, yes, photography is storytelling too).

You know what the great writers have? They have courage, as writers and as people. And when I say courage, I mean they tell the God’s honest truth about things. They reveal their truth by showing their humanity, for better or for worse. And I’ve realized, I am a coward. I am a coward-writer. I skirt around the truth when things get too prickly. Certainly, I tell a bit of the truth, but then I hide behind it just enough so that my tattered petticoat doesn’t show. I gloss over my gritty details because it’s hard work trying to convince everyone else you’re normal. It’s hard work covering up the unlovely travails of being human, and it’s painful to let all that humanness show. The idea of pity-filled whispers when we leave the room or outright rejection when we walk into it is enough to silence most anyone.

Silence isn’t an option if we are to have courage; any good writer knows this. That’s why the writer’s I love would chastise me if they were here right now. They would say, “More you!” “More truth!” and “Get real!” They’d shout, “Have some nerve!” and “Get over yourself!” Scott Fitzgerald would find me uncommitted to my art, and Hemingway would likely scoff at me, ranting, “By God, say one true thing!”

Yet I say half-true things—as in I reveal a truth but avoid how I got there. I say what’s on my heart without showing you how my heart’s shattered into a million pieces so tiny that I could never put them back together because they’ve embedded themselves in the pads of my trembling fingers when I was desperate to pick them off the floor.

And I’ve lied to myself, saying to myself your readers don’t want the details about your life. Who would want those details? And who am I anyway? No one, really. It’s narcissistic to share too much about you, Kimberly, and you are not a narcissist. And besides, no one likes a narcissist. Just share universal truths, I tell myself. Keep it clean and to the point. Help people find themselves. Find God. Or a resting place. No one gets hurt…

But you know what? That’s a cop-out. It’s a smooth little lie I’ve told myself for years on the quest to become a real writer.

As an artist and a writer AND A TEACHER, I want to find the courage to dig so deep at this thing called life that I excavate something that looks like something that’s new and fresh and true, but I want that something — be it a thought, a story, a moment in time — to reach so deep into you that you breathe in a way you’ve never breathed before because this new thing is you. And I want this new thing to be like a homecoming, like words you meant to say but never could, like a secret you could never tell but I just did, like a nod that you and I can make to one another across the globe because you’ve found something in me that is in you too.

And this cannot be done unless I get to truth-telling. FULL TRUTH. ALL THE WAY. NO HOLDING BACK.

That’s art. And it’s the only way.

Art takes courage. It’s a little bit crazy. It’s a tad bit unhinged. NOT HALFWAY. NOT SAFE. NO HOLDING BACK.

My favorite writers, my masters, my friends—they burrowed their way into my heart forever and ever because they dared to leave it all on the page: their blood, their fears, their triumphs, their humanity. I know them, and so I know myself more. I never judge them for their darkest moments because I love them just as they are. And I thank them, with my deepest gratitude, for showing their humanity so I can be okay with mine. They let me know them, not because they are narcissistic or because they deem themselves more special. They let me know them because they understand that laying it all bare is the only way to the truth, and they do it because they owe their truth to us all because they are our storytellers.

Storytelling, I’m learning, is hard. Like getting-sick-to-your-stomach-because-your-guts-are-all-over-this-blank-page-and-people-are-going-to-read-it hard. Like my-mom-neighbor-friend-and-student-might-read-this-truth-that-I-have-to-tell-and-what-will-they-think hard.

But for some of us, we know that storytelling isn’t a choice. We have to write, whether we want to or not. And we know it will be hard. So we come to understand, after some time, that rather than a choice writing has always been a mandate on our lives.

So I honor that mandate. I nod to it, and I vow to have more courage.


I want to be transparent so that my words are your words. I want you to see yourself in me and all the messy beautiful humanity that unites us.


Because that’s real art.

And courage is the only way through.

Professional photography is property of www.PhinneyPhotography.com.

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