Historically, writers who choose to write and publish fearlessly and authentically gift the world with unforgettable experiences. From journalists to essayists to novelists, some of the most moving and memorable tales have been penned by people who persisted without regard for popular opinion. Such storytellers write stories they want to read. And they don’t give up, not even when society threatens to reject them.
Toni Morrison is one of those people. Morrison, a celebrated and award-winning author who wrote novels, screenplays, and children’s books, wasn’t a published author until she was 39 years old. In fact, one of her most notable works, Beloved, a story inspired by true events and based on the life of an enslaved African American woman, remained on bestseller lists for 25 weeks and even won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Morrison was not only a fearless but revolutionary writer in that her books offered readers a glimpse into Black American situations and settings that defied stereotypes and in which white people are largely absent, a rare move for fiction writers of her time. Consequently, even today her books Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon, remain on numerous banned books lists on a range of accusations including “containing controversial issues.” Controversial for whom, I wonder? But I digress.
Hearing the name Stephen King conjures a picture (albeit dark and spooky for some) of one of the most successful authors and screenplay writers in modern history. In his memoir On Writing, which, in my humble opinion, every writer should have, King shares stories of his earliest attempts at writing and getting published. In one recollection, he said he took a nail, hammered it into his bedroom wall, and then stabbed his rejection letters onto it. When the letters filled the nail to its head, rather than giving up, he got a longer nail. It wasn’t until King was married and supporting a family that he was first published, and to that point, his first novel Carrie was rejected 30 times. Had Stephen King not written fearlessly, had he taken that first nail out of his bedroom wall and not replaced it, the world would have never known and enjoyed stories and film adaptations such as The Shining, Misery, The Green Mile, Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, and so many more.
In summer of 2022 I published my most controversial work to date. Only the Rocks That Float is a work of Southern Gothic literary fiction that follows a pair of interracial twins who are sent to live on a farm in the Depression-era Deep South. What they experience in their decade-long stay on the farm is both magical and heartbreaking. In order to write and publish this book, I had to consider two things: the type of content I was willing to write authentically and what themes and language I was not willing to include in my story, as doing so would have compromised my beliefs and potentially disrespected loved ones and valued readers alike. This was SUCH a tight line to walk, as writing authentically means writing the truth while also considering sensitivity.
While many of Only the Rocks That Float’s earliest reviewers revealed ecstatic thoughts about the story, others were concerned, conflicted, and sometimes repulsed by the book’s themes. Yet and still, even though I anticipated this type of response, I mustered an incredible amount of courage in order to finish a book that I felt was extremely important for me to write. As such, it behooves me to share a list of what I believe are five important considerations for writing fearlessly and authentically.
Writing fearlessly demands unwavering honesty and truth. Write the hurt, the pain, the hateful and ugly things. Feel them and write through them. If your story is based off a true story or inspired by true events, write the experiences as they occurred, without violating the privacy of your muse(s), of course. Always stay mindful of reader sensitivity, representation, and inclusion. When writing about the cultures and experiences of people unlike you, research to understand and then write from a perspective that honors those experiences. Consider reader sensitivity always—your editor will help you with this—avoiding stereotyping and tactlessness, while writing from a most authentic place, using your most sincere voice.
“You have to be willing to be honest with yourself about what happens when you write, how it affects people, how it affects you, and the potential for how it could affect someone next.” — Ashley C. Ford
Author Joe R. Lansdale is quoted as having said, “I write like everyone I know is dead.” What does that mean? It means to write the first draft without regard for whose feelings you are going to hurt or what people are going to think of you because you just wrote your truth. Make no mistake, this statement is not to encourage slander but to further support writing authentically. Once you are ready to polish your second, third, and so on drafts, your editor will have helped you with details such as sensitivity and showing the story as it unfolds inside your mind. They will help you project your voice in such a way as you have intended for the reader, and they will help identify language and themes that are too harmful or stereotypical to include. Conversely, it's necessary to accept that not everyone will enjoy your work; some might even hate it. Writing fearlessly means writing fueled by enough courage to invite and withstand inevitable criticism.
Although William Faulkner is widely credited with the statement, “Murder your darlings,” or “Kill your darlings,” the original quote was part of a phrase by British writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The statement is simply a metaphor for self-editing. Proceed with writing the first draft of your stories without regard for opinions. Write fearlessly and objectively. You will come back and edit later, and in that process, no matter how much you love your darling words or characters or scenes, if your editor and/or Beta Readers recommend removing them to elevate your story, its best to kill them off.
As previously mentioned, Toni Morrison was 39 when her first book, The Bluest Eye, was published, Bram Stoker was 50 when he published Dracula, and Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her sixties when she published Little House in the Big Woods. No matter your age or your position in life, there is no better time to write than right now.
Keep going. Get a longer nail.
A word after a word after a word is power. — Margaret Atwood.
Every time you start writing, always—always—try to set aside your fears. Although not everyone will love and connect with your work, your fans will find you. There’s enough room on the shelves, in the inches, and on the screen for every voice, every story. Writing fearlessly means writing without regard for what Gran or your boss might have to say—and if it helps you feel better, you can even write under a pseudonym. And remember, the first person other than you who will read your work will be your editor, so let them help you with matters like sensitivity and tone. Never let your worries and concern for critics stall you from writing; even the most beloved authors and books have one-star reviews, and some of the greatest stories ever shared were and still are on someone's banned list. Please have courage. Try it right now, right here. Muster your courage and answer this question with your most authentic truth: what do you have to lose?
 Fox, M. (2021, October 28). Toni Morrison, Towering Novelist of the Black Experience, Dies at 88. The New York Times. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/books/toni-morrison-dead.html
 Top 10 Most Challenged Books Lists. (2022, September 21). Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10
 King, S. (2010, July 6). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Classic). Scribner.
In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of literary, Southern Gothic, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.
Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative®, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. She holds a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, and she has worked as an instructional designer for nearly twenty years.
When she’s not writing fiction, Mandy enjoys the movies, theater, music, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, and binging The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to enhance creativity and foster wellness. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four sons, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at haintbluecreative.com and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.