How to take risks and be authentic with your writing and creativity
Many creative people find it difficult to write and create honest work from their own experiences because they’re afraid to be vulnerable and show their inner thoughts and sensitive history.
I believe the best creativity comes from real life and the most authentic stories come from true experiences. It’s our job as creatives to tap into our courage and shine a light on our stories and our raw experiences for our readers and audiences.
How do you take risks, be courageous, and be unafraid to show your raw self with your writing and creativity? How do you develop creative courage?
I’m a creative and media consultant, writer, editor, and musician, and I’ve successfully run my creative agency for almost nine years. Prior to that, I worked in digital media as a web producer and copywriter. Then, I had a wild and rewarding career as a songwriter, recording artist, and international touring musician.
I’ve been a creative since I was very young, and I enjoy pushing the limits of creativity. I was an award-winning classical pianist as a child and a garage rock singer as a teenager in Minnesota. After leaving the Midwest, I was a spoken word performer and rock singer in Seattle, a dance club DJ in Europe, an editor for an art and literature magazine in Prague, and an editor for a poetry journal in San Francisco.
After wearing many hats and having multiple creative careers, I decided to combine my various skills and help other creatives be successful. I’m still a creative myself and I always intend to be. Writing and storytelling are what I truly love, and I’m grateful to be valued and paid for the creative work I do.
When I work with my clients, I use my own experience as a creative myself. I use my failures often more than my successes because I want to help people make the best decisions. I make recommendations by explaining what I did wrong, and I did a lot of things wrong. Thankfully, I also did some things right.
One of the things I believe I did correctly from an early age was to develop my work with creative courage and vulnerability.
What Do I Mean by Creativity and Being a Creative?
Many professionals refer to themselves as creatives because creating and producing things is how we make our living. But I believe everyone creates, which makes everyone a creative whether they know it or not.
As a writer, you might write fiction or nonfiction. You might be a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, journalist, or poet. You might write in several genres: humor, horror, erotica, memoir, fantasy, romance, suspense, thriller, self-help, personal transformation, or science fiction. You may write articles, stories, novels, listicles, or e-newsletters.
As a writer, you probably have multiple creative outlets that include more than writing words. That might be making music, visual art, or doing performances. You might write words or songs. You may paint or take photographs. You may make films or videos. You might dance, cook, sculpt, bake, or weave. Most creatives have more than one form of creativity.
Creativity in my definition includes every single thing you produce.
Whatever it is that you produce, I believe your personal experience is what will drive your best creativity. For me, as both a writer and musician, my best-received work has often been my most honest and brave. That’s what I encourage you to tap into: your creative courage and your ability to be creatively vulnerable.
When I work with my clients and when I develop my own work, I use models all the time. I call them aspirational and inspirational models.
Aspirational models are creatives you aspire to be like. They are your creative heroes and they often work in your field. I believe in a cycle of heroism. If you aspire to become like your heroes, then you, in turn, can become a hero that others aspire to be.
Inspirational models are others who inspire you to develop your work. They might be from any field but they light your creative fire. It might be a musician who makes you want to write great fiction or a photographer who inspires your screenplays.
To develop creative courage and authenticity, begin by thinking about one of your models. Think about the stories, books, or other work they’ve produced that you aspire to be as good at producing. Or think of work they’ve created that inspired you. It might be poems, short stories, or artwork that motivates and sparks your desire to make your own.
Did those inspirational stories and work come from a courageous place? Do they show an aspect of their lives that is awe-inspiring, painfully raw, or extraordinarily risky? Is their work deeply dark, hilariously tragicomic, or both?
If so, this is a model for your own creative fearlessness. These are the writers and creatives you look up to; they’re aspirational because you want to be like them. They may also be inspirational because they make you want to be an incredible storyteller or artist yourself.
Now, what is something about you that feels risky? What is something that very few people or no one knows about you?
If you have a story to tell that you’re afraid of telling, it may be the best story, poem, song, or script you have. It’s your job to find the courage to tell that story. How?
People can tell when you’re being dishonest. They can tell when you’re making something up that you know nothing about. Most readers can see and feel if you really know and have experienced what you’re writing about. Audiences can see through your mask.
Vulnerability combines with courage in an integral way to help you tell an authentic, honest story. No one has lived your life except you. Your story is completely unique and genuine to only you, and it can become an extraordinary piece of creativity if you open yourself up and tell it honestly.
How can you be raw, transparent, authentic, and honest with your work? How can you be direct and tell your readers and audience who you are without hiding behind a veneer?
Here are five steps to develop work using Creative Courage and Vulnerability:
1. Free Write Uncensored
Sit down and free write whatever it is you’ve come up with that no one knows about — ideas that feel risky and daring. Don’t be afraid. No one has heard or read your writing yet so no one can judge you or be upset by your work.
Free writing can be anything. Just take notes and see where it goes. It might be paragraphs, dialogue, or bullet points you write down on paper or type on a screen.
Don‘t censor yourself. Don’t be concerned about what people might think or who you might offend. Just let it flow.
2. Step Away
Now, step away from the work you’ve done. Take a break from the notes you took to develop your courageous and vulnerable ideas.
Let it simmer for a day, week, or month — even a year is ok. The key is that you dove into a topic you’ve never written about — one that few or no one might know about you.
When I do this, I find I come up with multiple creative ideas. Each idea springs forth like a tree with branches. These ideas become my future library of creative possibilities.
3. Return to the Work
After some time has passed, return to the ideas and concepts you’ve developed. At least sleep on it for a night.
Then, look at what you’ve developed and decide what you feel is the best story or concept you have. Choose something you want to tell and release to the world.
You still don’t have to be scared about the outcome of writing your ideas down because no one has seen or read what you’ve written.
4. Craft It
No matter how fearless or open you’ve been, you need to write and create well. You need to develop your stories, chapters, songs, and scripts into the best they can be. I strongly believe that the best writing and creative work rises to the top.
How do you take your vulnerable and risk-taking work and make something exceptional out of it?
Write to your audience. How? Choose who your audience is. Think of who you want to impact with your work. It’s helpful to visualize three specific people, then ask yourself:
What impact do I want to have on my readers and audiences? How do I want them to feel? Do I want them to laugh? Make them scared? Inspire them? Weep meaningful tears? How do I want to affect them?
The words you choose to write should be targeted at your specific audience and then it should affect them the way you intend.
In my view, our voices come from the music and rhythms inside us. Voices are what we use to speak, sing, and write. What you know best is your own voice, your own experience, and the soundtrack you have inside. It’s how you communicate authentically.
I often joke that we all have our own theme songs inside (like the character Peter once had on an episode of Family Guy, and it played wherever he went). But I do seriously believe that we each have unique, inner soundtracks that pair with our stories. Your authentic voice is the voice created by using your own unique experience.
No matter what genre you write and work in, borrow from your own reality to develop your work and it will reach your readers and audiences in a deeper way.
No matter if your genre is YA, fantasy, or thriller; if you’re a hip hop, country, or pop artist; if you are developing a staged musical, a multi-media performance, or a TikTok video, it’s the same. Develop your characters, settings, and narratives based on your unique experience. Your characters, settings, and stories should be based on aspects of you and the life you’ve lived because you know them best.
5. Release It
True courage and vulnerability take place when you release your work to be read, seen, or heard.
Bravery is when you submit, query, publish, perform, or drop an album. It takes courage to release good, honest work. Releasing means you’re ready to let go.
If you’re scared of releasing your work, ask yourself: why?
Are you frightened you’ll upset someone with your bold work? Are you comfortable with that?
Being uncomfortable is not a reason to hold back. It could be one of the purposes of your work: to challenge yourself and your audience. Change-making work sometimes upsets people, but it also inspires them. Risk-taking writers and creatives make people think and feel in a different way.
Let your work go and be unattached from the outcome. Release your expectations of whether you’ll fail or whether anyone will like it. Just see what happens.
Here are four questions and concerns I’ve received about releasing brave, honest work:
What if you write about someone and it’s considered libel or slanderous? What if I get sued?
You can write anything you want, even using real names, and until you publish or release it publicly, no one can do anything legally. You can’t be sued for writing something; you have to publish or release it first and then it’s rare that people take legal action.
If your story is actually true, usually people won’t take legal action at all. If you’re writing about someone wealthy, powerful, or both, they might have the time, resources, and interest to pursue legal action. In that rare case, if you’re truly concerned, I recommend talking with an attorney to keep yourself safe.
But wait until you’ve written and edited the work, it’s final, and you plan to publish or submit it. Until all of that is finished, you don’t need to worry. Write and edit it first. You own your story and no one can prevent you from writing it.
I want to write a memoir about growing up and a lot of it is about my family. How do I write honest work without upsetting people I love?
If you’re afraid that you might upset them, then you may already be on to a very strong example of creative courage. Write it first and then decide if they’ll still be upset. If you think they will, you can edit your work until you feel they won’t.
If you really still think they‘ll be upset, you can send them the work and ask their permission. But you don’t have to ask for permission from anyone — you own your story.
Communication is separate from creativity. You have to choose how to interpersonally communicate with people before you release your work. Communicating is kind, courteous, and respectful, and it’s as important as creativity. But it’s only necessary to communicate if you believe it is.
I wrote something very honest but I’m afraid to publish it because I think it could jeopardize my job or livelihood.
The first question to ask yourself is: Is that really true?
Anthony Bourdain wrote the article Don’t Eat Before Reading This about truths in the restaurant world and became an international success not too long after it was published in The New Yorker. He took a risk, wrote something courageous, and his career took off.
Often, we create fears simply because we are afraid of failure. We make excuses. We put invisible walls up in front of ourselves. That’s when taking a hammer to those walls is a courageous act. Taking a leap into the unknown might lead to the best outcome.
If you’re telling the truth about an institution or organization you work for, maybe the truth needs to be told. Maybe you’re making a great change-making decision.
If you’re still concerned about what people might think, you can use a pseudonym, however, I’m a fan of being transparent and standing behind your work with your real name.
Courage means taking a risk and you have to define what that means to you.
I’m afraid that if I write about this person or event, it might be dangerous for me. How do I write about it?
My client, writer, and personal hero of mine, Jenny Mundy-Castle, wrote an absolutely incredible memoir about her experience of being sexually abused and assaulted as a child, teenager, and young adult by different people in different parts of the world. One of those people was later discovered to be an actual serial killer.
Her book is a statement of courage and her bravery is beyond admirable. But what really helped is how good a writer she is — she crafted her work into a diamond. She didn’t just write; she edited and polished her manuscript.
If your writing might expose a dangerous person, you might be making yourself and the world safer. You can change the world with vulnerable, courageous writing. But always make it your best writing by crafting it.
Shine a light on your personal experiences and stories for your audience and readers. Tap into your creative courage and vulnerability, and create something remarkable.
No one has lived your life other than you and your story is uniquely yours. You own your story and it deserves to be told.