Monday, January 18, 2010

Guest Post by Rachel Held Evans

The Art of Airing Dirty Laundry

If your mother was anything like my mother, there were a few things you probably learned before the age of 10.

Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t get into cars with strangers. Always say “please” and “thank you.” Never air your dirty laundry in public.

While I’ve faithfully observed the first three for the past 28 years, I’ve practically made a living ignoring the fourth.

That’s because every writer knows that readers don’t like one-dimensional characters. The good guy’s got to have some flaws in order to be relatable, and the bad guy’s got to show some shades of virtue now and then in order to be believable. As a creative non-fiction writer, with a spiritual memoir due out in July, this poses a bit of a challenge because the protagonist of my story just happens to be me. If I want my words to resonate with my readers, I have no choice but to air a bit of dirty laundry.

And I don’t mean a light load consisting of petty little dramas in which I play the victim. I mean the stinky, deep-stained stuff—secrets and fears, jealousies and prejudices, insecurities and acts of self-centeredness. (I may even have to write about the unfortunate incident involving an entire roll of refrigerated cookie dough that somehow ended up in bed with me the night after my first rejection from a publisher.)

As I’ve studied other memoirists, (particularly Anne Lamott and Donald Miller), I’ve noticed how skillfully they weave just enough dirty laundry into their narratives to gently remind us that we’re all in the same boat, all deeply flawed, and all insecure about it. Consider these observations to be like instructions on the care labels of your dirty laundry:

  1. Don’t overwhelm the reader. Nobody wants to read 140-pages of self-loathing—unless, of course, they are between the ages of 13 and 20.

  2. Have a sense of humor about it. In one of my favorite lines from “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott writes, “I started writing sophomoric articles for the college paper. Luckily, I was a sophomore.”

  3. “Air” on the side of caution when it comes to writing about family and friends. This might mean taking a little extra responsibility for mistakes that were made; it might mean truthfully showing—not telling—what happened.

  4. Lighten an intense theological or philosophical paragraph by poking fun at yourself for attempting it. In a particularly dense section of my book I quip, “Occasionally people will ask me what I think about truth. They ask me if I believe in it, what I think it is, and if I think it’s relative or absolute. These are pretty sophisticated questions to ask someone who once lost her contact lens in her eye … for two days.”

  5. Write honestly about sin. It’s one of the few things we all have in common.

  6. Write about those universal insecurities that we all share—our common dirty laundry, if you will. I loved Donald Miller’s poignant and funny thoughts in “Blue Like Jazz: “Everybody wants to be fancy and new. Nobody wants to be themselves. I mean, maybe people want to be themselves, but they want to be different, with different clothes or shorter hair or less fat. It’s a fact. If there was a guy who just liked being himself and didn’t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everybody would want to be him.”

The beautiful thing is that there are perks to airing your dirty laundry. It frees you from the weight of carrying the load in secret. It gives you the chance to laugh some of it off. And when neighbors come by to add theirs to the heap, it reminds you that you’re not as alone as you might think.

Do you air your dirty laundry when you write?

(Rachel Held Evans is a writer from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town,” will be released by Zondervan in July. She blogs at )


  1. Rachel,
    I’m honored to have you guest post at All in a Day’s Thought. This stirred a million thoughts in me. Lamott and Miller are two authors I greatly respect, as are you. I can’t wait to read, “Evolving in Monkey Town.”

    The beginning lines to Blue Like Jazz are some of my favorite lines from any book (and forget cookie dough, I’ve slept with a lot of books).

    Thank you for presenting your thoughts on memoir…and now…Let the conversation begin…

  2. Hi Rachel and Wendy, Wonderful memoir thoughts here. I'm currently marketing a memoir manuscript, and I've found that one of the beauties of writing memoir is that as the writer, I really gave so much thought to my life situations and chose my words carefully and tenderly. Often, once the situations go through the whole writing thought process, they emerge with a certain poignancy. Thanks for sharing today, and best wishes on your book!

  3. Thank you for sharing about this today. Yes, I certainly do air it but try to do it in a way to make a point--not to just tell it:) thank you!

  4. Sigh. It's hard to find a balance as you commingle dramatic stories. Thank you for a principle that I needed to remember!
    Great post!


  5. Camouflaged within the story and fictional characters for sure. Balance is so important and moderation, too. I like to spread my dirty laundry out in many, many novels.

  6. Oh, great interview! I enjoyed getting to learn more about Rachel (other than the snippets from Twitter!). I've never considered writing a memoir, but I certainly admire those who have the guts to air their dirty laundry! I prefer sneaking mine out in tiny tidbits through the lives of fictional characters. That way no one can truly know what's my dirty laundry and what belongs to the world of fiction! ;-)

  7. This reminds me of what Stephen King once said, "It all comes out in the wash." So true for writers isn't it? I'm not sure my love ones know what a hazard it is to be around me. I have a knack for putting them into my novels.

  8. I admire people who can write non-fiction especially memoirs. I think I throw little tidbits into my blog or my writing.

  9. Excellent advice! I'm a novelist, so my own life experience informs the themes I choose. One of my critique partners found out something about my personal history the other day. The light dawned in his eyes and he said: "Oh--is that why (character from my novel) acts that way?" The answer to that question for me is always both yes and no. I never draw characters directly from my life, but I think all novelists find certain themes recurring in their work.

  10. Thanks you, Rachel, for this insightful list, and also to you Wendy, for hosting her here today!

    I have to say, I air a bit of DL in my writings. My parents, when they read a draft of the MS, were horrified -- not because I depicted any of my loved ones harshly, but because I was too confessional (in their eyes) about my own flaws, struggles, doubts, etc. It took them a while to embrace the fact that I was such an honest writer!

    On the bright side, though, writing about my faith DL helped me find God after a 20-year dry spell, and I am so incredibly grateful for that. It was worth all the raw grit that poured onto the page (most of which ended up on the "cutting room floor," so to speak).

  11. "Write honestly about sin."
    Can I have an amen?
    If we have no sin, we have no need for a Savior, no salvation.
    No story.
    I love to read about God's redemptive power. It is my goal to write about it, and to be able to share it with anyone who will read my words.

  12. Since I just wrote my story...affirmative to your question and I'm almost done reading Bird by Bird by Lamott and loving it. Her 'dirty laundry' makes her book more fun.

  13. Beautiful post! I completely agree that flaws and virtue are both essential to a well-rounded character. Good luck on your book!

  14. What a great list! I don't necessarily air dirty laundry, but I pour all my emotions into my writing. I think that helps my characters become more dimensional.

  15. Thanks so much for the opportunity to post here, Wendy. I've been really encouraged by the comments. (On my blog, I often write about politics and theology, so it's a little weird to encounter comments in which people agree with me!)

    I'm open to answering any questions you all might have about publication. It's always nice to "meet" fellow writers.

  16. I just bookmarked this page, 'cause I know I'll need this information!

  17. Good choice for a guest blog, Wendy. Rachel is a very good writer (I read some of her blog posts) and has some great words of wisdom to share here.

    I esp liked her 3rd point: "“Air” on the side of caution when it comes to writing about family and friends. This might mean taking a little extra responsibility for mistakes that were made; it might mean truthfully showing—not telling—what happened."

    Another way I handle this challenge is to change the names and some of the details. Don't know if it is as effective as Rachel's suggestion, but it has worked for the kind of writing I do. There is one big incident in Roaring Lions, Cracking Rocks where I did this.

    Good post.


  18. I'm learning to write more DL with a large serving of humor. It's not easy. I LOVE the points you made. I will try to remember them. Thanks so much for this post. Blessings*

  19. Warren - I also changed names (and a few circumstances) in my book. Although I kept my husband's (and parents' and sister's) the same because I only say nice things about them!

    I'm one of the few memoir-writers with a genuinely happy childhood. I'm concerned this may have a negative effect on sales.

  20. Hi, Rachel and Wendy! I love this topic. I, too, have rebelled against what my mom taught me from time to time by airing dirty laundry. It makes life interesting.

  21. Enjoyed this post! I've yet to air much laundry, but can see the potential in the future. I'll aim for balance and discretion:)

  22. Hi Wendy-
    That was terrific. Reinforced my own work and gave me a few pointers as well.
    In my line of work as a therapist, I see on a regular basis the liberation people experience when they can unload themselves and discover in the process they aren't crazy after all.
    This post feels like a confirmation from the Lord. Some days I think, "Who the heck are you to think you have something to offer in the memoir you pen?" And then God speaks to blog posts some days. :-)
    Loved this. Thank you for knowing Rachel would have so much to contribute. I am off to follow her!

  23. I've found Rachel through Twitter and have enjoyed her blog post. I always want to air more dirty laundry than my family would like me to. I figure if it can help someone else, then why not??? :O)

  24. Wendy and Rachel:
    I almost aired some dirty laundry in writing about a relative in trying to put together something for a Chicken Soup book (Family Matters) but I decided against it. That relative is still living and could really hold a grudge.

  25. Fabulous post. And, too, I was intrigued by what Rachel said here:

    "I'm one of the few memoir-writers with a genuinely happy childhood. I'm concerned this may have a negative effect on sales."

    Interesting thought, but you know, Rachel, I don't know if this will mean a negative effect on sales. Frankly, most of us live in the middle -- not on the fringes. I think there's something to be said for writing that grows out of the ordinary-ness of life. Therein lie some of the most extraordinary moments -- and, frankly, some of the best writing of all time.

    "When they ... realized that they were unschooled, ORDINARY men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus." Acts 4:13

    Blessings to you both in your writing and spiritual journeys.


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