Writing Naked

January 28, 2010  

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable –Cynthia Ozick

I took exactly one class in writing. It was about fifteen years ago at the community college and was taught by a real published author whose name I cannot recall. But she was published, and as far as I was concerned that was all the credentials she needed.

The first class turned out to be the most useful. That’s not to say the instruction given in the proceeding eleven weeks of the course wasn’t useful. It was. But that first night alone was worth the money.

The twenty or so people in the class formed a semi-circle around the professor, who stood in behind a wooden podium that was much more intimidating than she. We sat at attention, notebooks ready, eager to have our heads filled with the hidden secrets of literary success.

“Tell me,” she said, “what does one need to write?”

The more outgoing among the class were quick with suggestions:




“Connections.” (That one was met with a nervous chuckle from the rest of the class.)


Each was met with an approving nod and so was written down by everyone, myself included. But that really wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“Those are good suggestions,” she said, “but you’re leaving the most important aspect out. Anyone?”

No one.

“Courage,” she said.

I didn’t really understand that and snickered under my breath. Courage? Soldiers needed courage. Cops needed courage. EMTs and stunt men and bullfighters. But writers? Sitting on your butt and typing on a keyboard did not take courage.

“There are some who might disagree with that,” she said—and to this day I swear she looked at me when she said it—“and I understand. You disagree because you’re writing with your clothes on. By the time you leave here, you’ll be writing naked.”

I’ll admit I almost walked out then. I’d heard about kooky writing classes given by kooky professors who did some pretty strange things in the name of “art.” I was afraid if I stuck around I’d end up dressed in a blue tracksuit with a cup of Kool-Aid in my hand because a comet was passing by to take me to heaven.

I stayed in my seat on the whim she was speaking metaphorically.

“There is no greater fear than to face a blank page,” she said. “It mocks and threatens. It challenges you. Give it power, and it will eat you alive. Face it clothed, and you will fail. The only way to beat the blank page is to attack it naked.”

Twelve of the twenty students raised their hands.

“Wait, wait,” she said, moving her hands in a downward motion. “No, I’m not speaking literally. But I’m not joking, either. Let me ask you something else. Why do people write?”

More hands in the air, which she chose to ignore.

“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”

She told us to put our pens down and just listen.

“Writers fail because they come to the page fully clothed. They adorn themselves with fanciful plots and layer themselves with complicated character development. They use flowery prose and words you have to look up in the dictionary. They do this not to impress their readers, but to keep their readers at arm’s length. They’re afraid. Afraid to bare their souls and inject themselves into their work. For that they are cowards.

“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”

I’ll always remember that. In fact, written on an index card taped to my lamp are these two words—Be Naked. Because she was right, that’s what writing is all about. Fiction or non, poetry or devotional, funny or serious, it doesn’t matter. Our calling is still the same:

To bare ourselves so we may be the mirror the world holds to itself.

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  • http://angiemizzell angie mizzell

    It’s probably don’t need to be the 51st person to say this, but still I must: Wow. I felt the punch of that post right in my gut.

  • Karen McGrath

    Excellent. I read tons of stuff that is fully clothed and it makes me ill. Gotta wear your heart on your page. Thanks, Billy.

  • Helen

    Billy, I took for granted that it’d be okay with you if I referred to this on my blog today. I’m still taking that for granted, but thought I’d let you know.
    I understand this post better today than I did when I first read it.

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  • Cynthia Schuerr

    Thank you, Billy. It helps so much to know that all writers feel that terror, no matter what stage of writing they are in. Your posts are always so insightful and you definitely write from the heart. :-)

  • rebecca @ altared spaces

    Sometimes it’s hard for me to know if I’m naked. I do a good job of keeping that last layer on, I think. Fooling even myself. The writing can feel solid, even human…but still might lack that ultimate connection to my skin.

    I think it’s a practice. It’s uncomfortable being cold. And naked. Until you turn up the heat.

    I’ll keep your words in mind tomorrow and tomorrow as I undress in front of the computer.

  • Beverly Grider

    “WOW” – first word that came to mind when I finished reading your post. Immediately followed by a resounding “OH YES.” Thank you so much for sharing this experience with everyone.

  • Rebecca

    This post really spoke to me, as I am learning that I write the same way I live – always holding back emotionally. One of my writing professors is constantly nudging me to put emotion on the page, not just show what happened but allow my readers to feel what I felt.

    I like the concept of stripping everything else away and writing naked; writing exactly what comes to mind, exactly what you feel without worrying about how someone will react or what someone will think. However, it’s much easier said than done. As a writer, hiding behind words is something we instinctively do. Are all writers introspective? More comfortable in the corner observing the party than mingling and meeting new people? We are the storytellers, the chroniclers of life, the means by which future generations will know what life was like in our time. In order to tell truth, we must be willing to open ourselves – to write naked.

    Great post, thanks for sharing the inspiration!

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  • brittany

    so inspired by this. thank you.

  • Pattyann

    Love this article.  It is truly good.  thank you for sharing and for making me think  

  • Diana Trautwein

    Joy in the Journey sent me here today – and I’m so glad she did. I didn’t discover your blog until long after this had been written, so I’m grateful for this blast from the past today, as I face into year 2 of this blogging stuff. Trying to write naked, sometimes succeeding, sometimes covering up. Working on that.

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  • Becky

    Popped over from Joy in this Journey to read your article. Honestly, I had planned on simply scanning it, but I read most of it twice. I’m taking this as my challenge this year and will think of it with each new post. Thank you so much for sharing this experience! 

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  • Jim Clary

    To truly reach your readers, you have to bare your soul and heart. Awesome article.

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  • B_bagwell

    Joy sent me here and it was worth the trip

  • idelette mcvicker

    Tears. Thank you.

  • Sarah Bessey

    Oh, my. Yes.

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  • Beth

    Yes and yes and yes.

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