Living honestly, writing authentically: Learning to be truthful with myself

Coming to terms with who I am when nobody is in the room

Daniel details how creative writing has shaped his personal growth.

All I did in my first year of university was lie to myself. I didn’t know what I wanted to do socially or academically, but I kept telling myself  I did.

I was unsure of what I wanted to study, who I wanted to befriend, and my relationship. I put on a mask of faux-extroversion and tried to convince myself that I loved my frosh group and my floormates. I kept telling myself that I was happy, that I knew what I was doing. I kept lying.

Deep down, I knew that I was unhappy with my environment and found myself craving others’ approval.

One of the few times I trusted my gut in first year was with my decision to major in English. I wanted to read more books. I wanted to write more.

I applied to Carolyn Smart’s Creative Writing in Prose class in the summer going into second year and was accepted. I thought admission into this course and doing well in my high school’s Writer’s Craft class marked me as a champion writer.

When I received a C+ on my first assignment, I was shocked. She doesn’t understand my writing, I thought. She’s a poet first and foremost. What does she know about prose?

I called my father, a novelist and creative writing professor at Western University, to refute Carolyn’s claims that my writing had “too many adjectives” and was “heavy handed,” but he agreed. I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.

My father was honest with me. Carolyn was honest with me. She’s one of the most honest people I’ve ever met—maybe the most. Her final words of feedback to me were: “Don’t be disheartened. Push yourself further.” And that’s exactly what I did.

My work improved throughout the year, and I was continuously humbled by the writing of my talented classmates. The highest grade I received was an A-, and I ended the course with a B+.

Overall, I don’t think I was a standout student in my first creative writing class.

I would assess myself as slightly above average, promising, and having decent technical command over language, but my work was missing the unexplainable, emotional pinnacle real art contains—one that I’ve come to believe is sheltered within honesty and raw emotion. I was living dishonestly, and my writing was dishonest as a result.

I was just writing—for lack of a better word—stuff. Not only did I fail to understand the perspectives I was writing from, but I also didn’t try to properly incorporate emotions I did understand into those perspectives.

I wrote the odd piece that was grounded in my own history or emotion, and they were my most well-received pieces.

But even then, I was hiding.

It’s one thing to engage with your surface thoughts, and another thing to engage with what you’re really thinking. I was hiding from my deepest thoughts—stories only I could tell—and was limiting myself both on and off the page.

Carolyn’s honest feedback introduced me to a rawness that I hadn’t been exposed to before. It was in her class, on a subconscious level, where I started realizing that I wasn’t living authentically.

When the pandemic hit, I was forced to face that subconscious emotion. I started to come to terms with who I was when nobody was in the room.

I hit a breaking point when I admitted to myself that I was unhappy in my relationship. I confided in my mother, and she pointed me to Kids Help Phone.

I remember picking up the phone, about to speak, and I couldn’t get a word out. I just started crying. I wailed. I sobbed. I remember the woman on the other line amazed by the amount of emotion I’d pent up.

For the first time in my life, I realized I was a person in the grand scheme of things—that I mattered, that my feelings mattered, that what I wanted mattered just as much as other people. I told the truth.

After this moment of honesty, I ended my relationship, quit my job, and lost friends. This behaviour looked pretty destructive from the outside, but it wasn’t. It was reconstructive.

When I began to write again later that summer, it was with honesty and conviction. There was no more hiding who I was or holding back from what I wanted in my outside life.

I wrote a poem, “She Must,” about my insecurity of letting go of a new relationship that had just began that September. It was an honest confession—it won The Journal’s 2020 poetry contest.

The next piece I wrote was a short story titled “Ballad of a Thin Man.” While staring at a blank page trying to start, I heard Carolyn’s advice come back to me: always write for yourself. For the first time, I told myself that I wasn’t going to show this piece to my father. This one was for me. I held my breath and wrote down the words: “I think my father is going to die soon.”

When I finished it, I wasn’t sure what to make of the story. I had never written anything like it. I submitted it to Carolyn first, then showed it to my father—he loved it. Carolyn gave me my first A+ and invited me to Advanced Creative Writing. I had finally written for myself, I had finally let it out.

“Ballad of a Thin Man” was published alongside another short story of mine in Lake Effect 10, and won the 2021 McIlquham Foundation Prizein English.

I am now writing a novel, working title Thin Man, because of the award. Because I was honest with myself. Because I did, said, and wrote what I wanted to write.

My final note to frosh and anyone else reading this: live unapologetically and be honest with yourselves. It’s necessary and decent. Whether it’s about your major, your romantic life, or the friends you’ve made, trust your gut. Even if it’s telling you the scariest things.

Maybe even write down what it’s saying. It worked out for me.

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