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The secrets behind the practice of good writing: 37

by Jo-Anne Richards

18 Secret

How to bring sincerity to your work

The Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been much praised by critics for the “sincerity” of her voice. But her comments on how a writer achieves this sincerity surprised and delighted me.

She called sincerity the “torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project”.

I expected her to talk about experience and caring, or heart and empathy. Instead, she said the most urgent question for a writer was not: what experience can I bring to bear? What is my material?

But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true.

It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred.

If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative.

Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence…

This comment chimed with my own beliefs, and certainly has bearing on a pet subject of mine.

Fiction and creative non-fiction are closer than you think. Fiction does deal in truths: the great truths, but often also verifiable, well-researched truths, while non-fiction is never objectively true. The writer chooses what to include and what to emphasise.

But perhaps more importantly, as Ferrante has so eloquently put it, there is no truth (in fiction or non-fiction) without art or, perhaps, artifice.