The Arts of Telling the Truth

During the first ten years of my writing life, I learned that readers don’t want any bullshit but they do want to be entertained. The art, then, was the art of telling the truth. Some people call it advertising.

Ten years ago, I gave up the art of advertising and dedicated myself to the art of fiction. To my delight, many of the techniques I used in the art of advertising applied equally to the art of fiction. Regardless of how fictional a story might get, it has to be grounded in a shared reality between reader and narrator; it has to be grounded in something that both the reader and the narrator consider to be the truth.

The source of the truth doesn’t always have to be acknowledged by the narrator, but as the writer, its your duty to know exactly what that truth is and to not be shy about letting it be so.

Partly in thanks to this shared imperative to artfully tell the truth, my decade of experience in advertising and my six year study in fiction allowed me to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from a college of artists worthy of the name.

Eight years later, I’ve learned that the same imperative that grounds advertising and fiction also grounds the art of education. Like readers, students require truths to come to them in a language they can understand. They may not want to face the truth directly (because the experience of doing so might be boring), but they also don’t want to put up with any of your bullshit. Like advertising and fiction, then, the art of teaching is just another genre in the art of telling the truth.

But for the first time in a long time, I need to revert to the art of advertising, which, while sharing the imperative to tell the truth, also has a set of rules and practices that differ greatly from the arts of fiction and teaching. Where fiction tells the truth in the service of a story, and teaching tells the truth in the service of the future, advertising tells the truth in the service of a transaction. It’s been over a decade since I put my words in the service of something that feels so base.

If I’d done my job correctly over the past year, this project would already be done. The goal: to create a brand-new website for my school, one that in no ways relates to the current content or design. The students were supposed to be in charge. I was there to drive the project and to lend support, and another adult was there to spark their ideas and educate them on the process of thinking like a marketer, but the students would be the people with their ideas on the table and their hands on the keyboards.

During the first three quarters of the school year, they met once or twice a week, during which time they developed concepts and ideas for the website. By March, they had approved the website’s structure, tone, and design. During the fourth quarter, they were supposed to get to work.

Unfortunately, the quarter moved too fast and their workloads grew too high, and so as a group, they could not finish the task of actually writing, testing, and launching a website. This was understandable — disappointing, but understandable — but it also meant that the project’s final deliverables fell on me.

That’s why my schedule for the next four to six weeks includes not only four days of teaching and/or administrative work, but also one complete day per week that is dedicated to the production and launch of the newest version of the school’s website.

The difficulty will come not from any of the technical details of the project (while I might not be able to achieve the website of our dreams, I’m confident I can produce, at minimum, a clean and professional looking website). No, the difficulty will come, ironically enough, from the task I’m most qualified to accomplish, that of writing the words themselves.

As you are aware, my writing borders on the verbose. Verbosity does not perform well on the web, where content is meant to be skimmed, not indulged in. Visitors to a website arrive to accomplish a task or to find some specific information; they don’t come to languish in the art of written creation.

I am able to be verbose on my blog because it’s my fucking blog, and if you don’t like my verbosity, that’s your deal and no harm to me.

But on my school’s website, if you don’t accomplish the task you came to accomplish or find the information you so desperately need, your child might not find the school that best fits their unique needs, or the school might not grow fast enough for me to grow in my job, or the parent of a diagnosed child might not find the water in the desert that our program can be for some families. If a visitor doesn’t like my blog, big whoop; if a visitor doesn’t like what I write on the school’s website, the harm could be great and the foul could almost be a sin.

At the same time, I know I can get it right.

Writing a contemporary website won’t be easy for me, and it will take humility to remember that my tone is not the school’s tone, but by the time the project is complete, I suspect I will, once again, discover that the art of writing a website is just another genre in the art of telling the truth (tasks and information not included).