Judi Ketteler’s third book is Would I Lie to You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies (Citadel Press). An award-winning essayist, her writing appears in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, Runner’s World, others.
Meredith: “Focusing on honesty is a bit like putting on glasses after you’ve been out running familiar paths, but only being able to partially see them.” This is a line from your book, Would I Lie to You? Can you translate this into the writing experience and process, and the writer’s journey with self?
JUDI: When you start to look at your decisions and interactions through the filter of honesty, you see far more than you see when you live on autopilot. It’s not just noticing when you exaggerate or fib or leave something out of a story—it’s thinking about WHY you are doing it. That’s where the learning opportunity is. The same is true for writing. As writers, we’re always shaping narratives. That means leaving out some things and focusing on other things. There is such opportunity in looking at why we make the honesty choices we make when we write, whether we are writing as journalists, memoirists, or non-fiction authors.
Meredith: What is the difference, for the writer, between being honest and emotional honesty?
JUDI: First, I think it’s important to note that honesty isn’t always the most important value in any given interaction. There are always competing values that we need to weigh. I can walk into a room and tell someone that I find them dim and unattractive—that’s honest, but it’s also cruel and selfish. The same is true of a piece of writing. You can use your words to be honest, but it can be cruel and highly self-serving. To me, emotional honesty means going deeper and paying attention to the feelings underlying any given situation.
Meredith: Ranier Maria Rilke wrote the following:
“I believe in all that has never been spoken.|I want to free what waits within me | so that what no one has dared to wish for | may for once spring clear | without my contriving.”*
Talk to me about this in terms of writing and the writing process.
JUDI: The word “contriving” is what jumps out at me. In writing the book, there were times when I thought about the difference between letting a truth “spring clear,” as this line of poetry talks about, and about having my story feel contrived. Writing is how I make meaning in what has happened. It’s how I make sense of my life. It’s a tricky thing for people like me who do this kind of introspective, first-person writing. Are we writing down the reality we see before us, or are we writing something down to make it reality? Both, I think. I always say that I wrote the book mostly to save myself. Does that make it contrived? Or does it mean that I finally freed what waited within me? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I care. The experience of writing the book changed me. It helped my marriage. It helped me be a better parent. It helped me check my privilege. It helped me be less judgmental of others. It helped me stop feeling like I was always holding in what I truly wanted to say. And I hope that it gives readers some things to try if they want help in any of those areas. That’s ultimately what I care about.
Meredith: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?
JUDI: Whether you mean self-acceptance or feeling accepted and validated by readers, that really has to start before you put your writing out there for public consumption. As I’ve said, writing and sharing is what helps me make meaning. But I’ve learned not to share a piece of writing if my main reason for sharing is that I want validation from someone else. Brené Brown says something like, “Don’t share your story if what you think about your story is contingent upon how other people respond.” I could never have written this book five years ago when I was spinning around in judgment of myself. I wasn’t ready yet. So I say this to other writers: If you are still judging yourself for something, wait a bit longer to put a piece of writing out there, because it has the potential to wreck you.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be “someone” if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
JUDI: There is a mythology about writing and being a writer that entices people, because it sounds more interesting than whatever they have going on in their lives. I’ve always found it incomplete when people talk about dreaming of being a writer, because it’s usually shorthand for some other dream. Are you dreaming of a lifestyle? Of inspiring people? Of seeing your story made into a movie? Or maybe it’s just a dream of accomplishing the thing that you feel will finally earn you the right to be in certain circles. That last one is the most seductive to me, so I get it.
But those are all external outcomes. They have very little to do with the process. When it comes to the “passion” stuff of life, like artistic, creative, or athletic pursuits, we always need to ask: are we doing something primarily for the experience of doing it or for the external outcome? I run 20-25 miles a week for the experience of running. I do it for the actual feeling of running (and because running helps me think and stay healthy). A dream of winning a marathon is completely different than the consistent pursuit of running. I think writing is similar. People who “want” to write fixate on the external outcome, not the act of writing itself. External outcomes involve getting past gatekeepers, and of course it’s very exciting when you do crack open those gates and get published. But writing itself? It’s a lot less exciting, but it’s where the motivation has to start. To sit down, be still, turn off distractions, silence your own nagging voice that says you suck, and just write.
Judi lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. , where she enjoys running, yoga, doing flips on the trampoline, and hiding with a book in her backyard hammock. Find her at judiketteler.com.
*From Rilke’s Book of the Hours—Love Poems to God
Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy