Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Why You Should Tell the Ugly Parts of Your Story

When you tell your story, how do you talk about yourself? Are you completely honest? Really? Why not do something different? Make yourself a hero in the worst kind of way.

Great heroes sacrifice themselves, right? So do just that. Avoid the parts that make you sound amazing. Instead, focus on the broken, ugly parts of your story. In other words, write like Brennan Manning.

Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning

Take your cues from a ragamuffin

I just finished All Is Grace, a memoir by author, speaker, priest, and alcoholic Brennan Manning.

I was so engrossed in it I read nearly all of it in one sitting.

The next day, I finished it.

What struck me most about this book was not the darkness of one man’s journey. What I found compelling was his focus on the nasty bumps on the road. In many ways, it was truly a “ragamuffin memoir” — tattered and frayed in a million, dirty, clumpy pieces.

Full of self-effacing remarks and honest confessions, Brennan’s story will either give you hope, or depress you. Maybe both. But it challenged me in a weird way. The painful stories of blackouts and divorce coupled with profound spiritual epiphanies and love stories made me marvel at the complexity of life. Not just Brennan’s, but mine too.

And it made me want to tell my story in more honest ways — not as a rock star, but as a real, broken human being.

Be counter-cultural

Our culture is so image-centric and self-focused that it’s easy to think if we don’t pat ourselves on the back no one will.

But Brennan decided to be completely counter-cultural with All Is Grace. In other words, he made himself a hero in the worst kind of way. And for me, it was a breath of fresh air.

If you write a blog or a memoir or simply find yourself telling a story to a friend over coffee today, try doing this for a change.

Tell a nasty part of yourself you’d otherwise conceal. Tell something that humiliates and humbles you, and see how your audience reacts.

The truth will set you free

Writing like this may be more liberating than you realize.

At times, you will hold the keys to another’s prison. Just like when you write from the heart, your pain will become someone else’s healing balm.

And at others, you may find yourself confessing to yourself, with no one to listen to you. Regardless, you will be set free from the fear of having to impress people by telling nice lies.

You may find what Brennan discovered in his career. That there is a world full of desperate, broken people, longing to hear the honest words of another ragamuffin.

  • A beggar unashamed of his  hunger.
  • A thief unaware of his poverty.
  • A friend and addict.
  • A lover, liar, fighter and healer.

A paradox, like us all.

Go ahead: try it

Fortunately, writing ugly does a few beautiful things:

  1. It connects with the audience. When you openly share your faults, people will listen. Everyone can identify with failure and disappointment.
  2. It humanizes you. Despite what we see in movies, we don’t want a hero that is completely unlike us. We want someone who is real. That is someone we will pay attention to — not a superhuman.
  3. It humbles you. Face it: we writers could stand to be brought low once in awhile. We all live with weird neuroses, but we also battle internal arrogance. Disciplining yourself to air your dirty laundry kills haughtiness.

In the end, you can be a hero in one of two ways. You can be larger than life. Or you can be real. The difference is whether you’re willing to be honest, where you will write the ugly parts.

If this idea resonates with you, I suggest you pick up Brennan’s new book: All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.

Was there a time when you told an ugly part of your story? How did people react? Share in the comments.

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links.

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://sacredbe.blogspot.com rain

    thank you for this, jeff. somehow you always seem to give some kind of heart permission, and while i don’t know precisely the dynamics of how, i’ll take it. i wrote ugly recently, soul walking on water, and never cease to be humbled and amazed at how my raw, messy, confessional posts generate more response than the ones i pore over, carefully crafting. i need to pay attention.

  • Kathleenq

    I still get hits from your ‘r-word’ column daily – my blog is full of honest and raw emotion, recently published in Bay State Parent, and my recent blog is just what you are saying – truth, warts and all….http://mysonsaretard.blogspot.com/2011/11/i-have-to-bring-home-bacon-and-fry-it.html

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Kathleen. Appreciate your honestly sharing your story.

  • Renee O.

    Oh, yes. There’s something liberating and powerful about being honest about where you are and have been. I’ve done this and seen others set free from feeling like there was something wrong with them, or that they were the only one going through a difficult place. There’s freedom in knowing you’re not alone in your struggles.

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  • Roger

    I have been a decades long admirer of Brennan Manning and have given away his books and used his illustrations to help others.  His message resonated deeply with me.  Needless to say I am somewhat taken back to now hear him say that he has been a lifelong “liar” who fabricated and embellished stories to fit his message and to bolster his own needs.  He lied about his USMC military combat experience and fabricated the entire story of his friend who he said had fallen on a grenade to save his life.

    His transparency has been his greatest asset, sharing personal failures as a ragamuffin in order to illustrate the unconditional love and grace of God.  But how transparent has he really been?  He didn’t even really talk the talk if his talk was sprinkled with outright lies. He certainly didn’t walk the walk while living an undisciplined secret life.     He is a master storyteller.  I have heard him speak and he held me in the palm of his hand.  Forgive me if I have held him as a spiritual leader to a higher standard.  Even though his message never wavered, I feel let down.  Ironically, his revelations about himself tend to prove his case about grace.  His gospel message is simple, but I wonder if he has misled his followers as to the whole gospel.  He certainly speaks eloquently to all of us with wounded hearts.  His heroes have often been those with sinful hearts who struggled in their sin, all the while clinging to the love and grace of God.  His condemnation has frequently been directed at the “church” for their perceived legalism.I am not a legalist and am grateful for Brennan’s ministry.  I don’t want to nit pick.  I have always chosen to affirm what Brennan has emphasized, rather than criticize him for what he doesn’t emphasize.  But I am left with a cognitive dissonance.  I didn’t feel like Brennan gave us a full disclosure.  He gave us enough to garner our sympathy and appreciation for his unique contribution to the gospel message.  I consider myself one of his followers.  He has my sympathy and appreciation.  But I would also like to look him in the eye and tell him that he betrayed my trust.  He knew exactly what he was doing, whether it was his true self or false self  in the drivers seat.

    I just needed to say this to someone….anyone…..even to strangers in cyberspace.  I will try not to judge Brennan, but just to love him.  When I meet him in eternity this subject will not exist.  I do believe in grace.

  • http://christtribe.com/ Bob Holmes

    Jeff, Brennan Manning is another one of my hero’s.  Thanks for writing about him.

  • http://twitter.com/PatWooldridge Patricia Wooldridge

    Jeff, I like your comment about using a bit of wisdom when disclosing humiliating or painfully honest information about ourselves, and how it took Jamie 70 years to get to that point. Do you think maybe it takes that long for lots of people to ‘get to there’? I do. I think of the older folks I know, who have become much more outspoken and yet can temper the frankness with wisdom. I have to include myself in that category, though inside I seem to be a combination of 13 and 25 or so. (It helps if those of us who write for kids, keep our own very young self inside of us, to draw on, so we can remember how it was. Often, that Self creeps—jumps—out and rather startles people). I have to think of an account I once read, of a woman of 80+, once a ballerina, who, during the photo shoot that accompanied a story about her, said to the photographer, “I am not this person.” I feel sure that she was more like 25, inside. I’m not that old, but I empathize.

  • http://twitter.com/bethrago Elizabeth Rago

    Jeff, I love this post and prefer to write about my faults. I am not ashamed of my mistakes and feel the more honest you are in your writing, the more credible you become. I want to be real instead of perfect. Perfect is boring. The novel I am working on is ugly and I LOVE it.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Excellent.

  • Lkayjohnson

    I was amazed at the vulnerability that Stephen King showed in his book On Writing. He ruthlessly revealed his ugly sides, and it was a compelling read.  I don’t like horror, so this was my 1st King book.  I was surprised, impressed, maybe even a little humbled. Not sure I could be as honest as he was…

  • Darryl McMillon

    Hi Jeff, my name is Darryl McMillon and I linked to you through Mike Zserin’s webpage. I wanted to comment about the notion of sharing the ugly side of life (and like other former drug users, etc.) have my own war stories to share as well, not for boasting but just to rejoice in the amazing power of grace and mercy. I actually want to write an anthology of similar stories, beginning with my own, and would like to discuss this with you.

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  • Tess

    Hi again Jeff,

    There are angels on this earth, as they say when the pupil is ready the teacher arrives, and this post and you have arrived to affirm what I have been struggling with for years.
    I have an ugly story to tell, which is my reason for wanting to write in the first place, as for years I read everything I could on self help, finding yourself and a million misleading books, now I have the answer.
    I felt that telling my story seemed too self involved, who would believe it, could I be brutally honest without offending people, especially family, who would be involved? Yes I could, if I use my story as a starting point, and develop it into a book, using different names to protect family who could not deal with the bare truth.

    Thank you for the advice about baring the facts, it does help to relieve me of the burden  knowing or hoping that  others might be inspired or learn from my experiences.

    You are truly inspired and an angel, if not a prophet.

  • Allison Cherrette

    Thank you. I’m not going to lie, after hours on the phone with lawyers, the 

  • http://www.lifeaslolly.com/ LollyJean

    I’ve always been a big believer in this, but I always shy away from it because I had never found anyone who shared this belief. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rita

    What a great site; found this via another Christian blogger who I follow intermittently; I know I am called to write; have known it since I was 12 years old; I have received prophecies that I will write my story (both a fictionalised and a real account); I have even been given the title in a dream (no I am not crazy); also about 10 years ago I dreamt of the most beautiful, amazing redemptive love story…..yet I have never written it…..a few weeks ago I walked into a book shop in South Africa to find a book someone had written with a title (short of one word) that I was going to use for the love story that I dreamt about.

    I have so many stories residing in me……yet the biggest thing keeping me backis absolute FEAR!

    I am uncertain if this makes sense to anyone reading this; I’d love to hear others’ stories….and perhaps I need to take the challenge too!

  • JenSagiao

    This is great … we don’t like to show the ‘broken’ parts of ourselves, but as writers, we must. One word of caution that perhaps is obvious but still bears stating: avoid the ‘poor me’ self-indulgence of the self’s frailties and missteps. We certainly like seeing others’ ‘faults’, but begging for pity ain’t all that attractive. 

  • http://twitter.com/gaelblanchemain Gaël Blanchemain

    I love all things ugly!

    It’s often hard to prevent myself from spitting it all out. Especially the humiliating details of my failures. I’m always scared to turn people off.I like that challenge you’re proposing, Jeff. Me gonna try that out.Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/BecksPath Becky Middleton

    Thanks for posting this, Jeff Goins. I’m truth telling alright. Probably too much. If you have 5 minutes, maybe you could look over mine and let me know if too much is, well, too much. At beckymiddleton.posterous.com . Your brain seems a good one to pick.

  • Dorci Harris

    Thanks for this, Jeff.  I have a memoir to write that can get downright grotesque.  The question is, how ugly do I want to get?  It’s funny how we all want to whitewash ourselves and even ignore our own deepest, ugliest thoughts.  This is going to take some dumpster diving.  Some deep, sloshy, gooey, pit diving.  Somebody hand me some scuba gear. 

  • http://www.distractedbyprayer.blogspot.com/ Shannon @ Distracted by Prayer

    It’s a delicate balance, though.  I’ve been in church groups where sharing the “ugly parts” becomes the end game and not the means to an end.  Writers need to pray for God’s voice in their ear giving direction about when and how to share.

  • http://www.abiding.blogspot.com/ Bracewell Celeste

    Jeff, I referenced this in my own blog post this evening, with proper credits (www.abiding.blogspot.com). Thank you for your words.

  • Yahowwqkf

    That’s true. There is a difference between transparency and exhibitionism. Great point.
    [URL=”http://www.itnoor.blogspot.com”]My Blog[/URL]

  • Mary Martin

    I recently wrote a few blogs that dropped into the “baring my soul” category. Its hard to express the anxiety I felt in doing so. Not that I revealed some unconfessed sin that would shock the readers, but just that pain cuts deep and that where you love deepest, you hurt deepest. I received several calls from concerned friends and loved ones that thought I might jump off a bridge or do something dramatic, for which I was seriously embarrassed. Then, something AMAZING happened. Another injured soul reached back and talked about his grief in loosing his only child. It was never more apparent that this whole writing thing is really not at all about me.

  • Redbird_12001

    This is really outstanding information. It makes alot of sense.

  • Kathryne Leach

    Oh Jeff, as soon as I saw his face, the tears began to roll down my cheeks. I too, devoured All is Grace in a short time, marveling at Brennan’s transparency. He is one of my favorite spiritual authors for that very reason. It pains my heart to know he is suffering. Good post, it is a confirming word that I need to write a painful story I’ve been avoiding. Thanks! 

  • http://www.connectingbharat.com/ Aditya Saini

    Yeah we should tell Ugly parts .

  • wwjw com

    When I talk with my friends,I prefer to make jokes with myself and tell something bad about me.The same as my friends.

  • http://www.kizi2.com/ kizi 2

    thank you for sharing! congratulations

  • AH

    Beautifully written piece. Great idea. I normally write ugly in my diary

  • http://thomasmarkzuniga.com/ TMZ

    Admittedly, I’d not heard of Brennan Manning before everyone started commenting on his death. The more I hear about him, the more I’m falling in love with the guy. His “ragamuffin” description sounds so enticing to me. I’m actually in the midst of self-publishing a book of “messy memoirs” that don’t necessarily show the squeaky clean parts of me, and yet I know God uses brokenness to heal. Heal ourselves, heal others. I have a feeling I’ll be reading Manning’s stuff very soon as continued inspiration to write more vulnerably.

    Great post, Jeff!

  • http://TruthInWeakness.blogspot.com/ tanya @ truthinweakness

    a timely reminder, jeff. just last night, i was sharing w/ my husband that tchividjian’s glorious ruin has challenged me to not always wrap my stories of pain & suffering up in a pretty bow. but the challenge, i shared, is that i get concerned about it leaving people feeling depressed or hopeless, or being perceived as whiny or complaining. i struggle with finding that fine line in my writing.
    but i gotta say — one of the posts that was the hardest for me to publish (one in which i shared my nasty ugly battle/preoccupation w/ expectations of my husband) garnered the most appreciation. comments from folks who struggle with that, too — & struggle hard (like me!).
    so thx again for this friendly nudge. much appreciated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melody.e.goff Melody Engels Goff

    I LOVE this post! It is so true and, at least for me, the tendency is always try to spin things in a positive light. Thanks for sharing this, I appreciate it more than I can say.

  • http://www.kizi-friv.info/ kizi friv

    I think that even if the content is good or bad does not matter.
    It is important that the message you want to send to people through the story content.

  • E.H.Uminn

    I have been wrestling with this thought for quite awhile. Thank you for writing about this book, I will add it to my list of reads (on Goodreads! ;) ) The difficulty for a writer is how to share those parts in a way that touches others. Not an easy task, but an honorable one.

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  • Nora Traube

    It’s interesting, when I’ve been honest some have found it refreshing and others are afraid of it.

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  • Siobhan

    I’ve found that telling your truth and your stories is taken easier under specific formats such is in novels, blogs, poetry, songs, paintings or other works of art. But when speaking face to face with someone it’s harder for a person to take it through e-mail. Sometimes people respond well even if I speak in ways pointed more at my life as a way to reach them in their lives because I see a parallel but sometimes whether in e-mail or real life the other person really thinks it’s better to continue denial and put up walls. I lost an old friend this way because real friends don’t let friends keep tripping themselves up. At least I believe that, maybe I am old fashioned. You can soften your words to make it easier for someone to take but it isn’t your responsibility how they take it when you’ve done everything you can to send your message to them in a way that is balanced with gentleness and with being direct. Even when something is really wrong sometimes people cling to a false image or even a false story to hide behind. But the more genuine communication that people dare to make exist out there in whatever form it really helps. This stuff usually doesn’t win awards or gain you fame. And being genuine usually doesn’t make your parents proud of you because so many people ascribe worth to people based on their job, the amount of money they have coming in and how they look etc. A great documentary that makes you think is “Status Anxiety”. It can be found on youtube. Thank you to everyone who speaks their truth. Sometimes it’s really all a person has in their life and this is speaking from experience. Thank you

  • http://www.jugarjugar.net/ Jugar Jugar

    I completely agree with your opinion about myself in writing his book. I have also read the memoir and things like that. I just really impressed with the way the author wrote himself experienced what honestly as possible, I am always in the way authors write if that’s what gives me confidence. Overestimate yourself is what I hate the most

  • Karen Taylor

    Seems like you’re reading my thoughts. Telling the ugly? I yearn to. But its such a battle. What I am afraid of most is people telling me I told you so, its giving face to the lie that is my life, and I am not quite ready to look it in the face. It’s feeling so vulnerable; being afraid to face the truth and doing something about it, coming out of my comfort zone. But you are correct, telling the ugly story might be the catalyst to breaking free. I need to break free. Thanks for your provocative post. God may be using you to speak to me. I just need faith.

    • Maerahn .

      Karen, EVERYONE’s life is a lie to some extent; we play different roles depending on who we’re talking to, where we are, etc. I bet most of the people you know and look up to are also hiding dark secrets about themselves – for the same reasons you are, that they’re afraid of being judged. Every person on the planet is composed of two people; the person they aspire to be and the person they are – and too many people beat themselves up needlessly because they think the gap between them is too wide.

      Me, I’ve got a LOT of Ugly in my backstory, and like you, I was afraid of revealing any of it for years. I’m only just starting to do it now, and it’s been… not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, some of my friendships have actually grown stronger because of it – people are a lot kinder than you think, y’know ;)

      I think the trick behind building up the confidence is to do it in small bites at first; offer up some Ugly one little canape at a time, rather than hit ‘em with an entire three-course meal at the first sitting. Oprah, Dr Phil et al might like to chow it down that way, but that’s for TV ratings, not real life ;)

      And above all, don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone’s flawed, everyone’s a little bit broken. But that’s okay. How often is a kid’s favourite toy in the world the teddy bear with one eye missing, or the doll with the ratty hair?

  • Kristina Gallo

    Truth is not always nice, so why not to show ugly parts, this is life. If we don’t pretend it looks more realistic.

  • http://www.drleewarren.com W. Lee Warren, MD

    Thanks for this Jeff. It’s true; people want to know they’re reading/learning from/following a ‘real’ person. We’re all in this together, and we can gain the most from the experiences of others.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I agree, Lee. There’s nothing more encouraging than hearing from a friend who says, “Hey, I’ve been there.”

      • http://www.drleewarren.com W. Lee Warren, MD

        You’re right. That’s why this Tribe idea is so powerful. We all want to be part of a community of like-minded people. Thanks for what you’re doing.

  • http://amysticmind.com/ Rachel

    While there is freedom to both read and write honest disclosures – and would be a wonderful way to live, it also depends on the nature of the disclosure, the intended audience and where you are now. Saying too much in some situations can destroy your own credibility. I have repeatedly lost everything by being too honest, and then considered ill for the very act of being honest and real. Its a very tricky balance to find.

  • Mary Beal Berchem

    Myself and eight friends took the leap 5 years ago. They didn’t know each other prior to our meeting, so that may have eased the hesitancy to disclose a secret. However, once the door closed and one by one stories were read, the air became heavy, and unusual quiet overtook the room. Prior to our meet, one of our participants died, we agreed to tell her story though the 3×5 cards she’d written detailing her life. Our independent published book became
    Ped-i-cure, a metaphor representing gratitude for our feet(peds), our selves(i), and cure(making it through life regardless of what we step in). Shame, embarrassment, guilt, sorrow, fear, grief were the universal themes. Now the story becomes more as we confront the feedback from our endeavor. The Backside.

  • Kat Whit

    Such a powerful reminder in this article, Jeff! I often try to write short vignettes that make up a memoir, and it’s difficult because I start feeling that it all sounds so self-absorbent and sappy. I’ll have to focus on my own flaws more so my stories have more power and connect with readers. Thanks!

  • Art

    When I read the struggles and victories of others, It helps me to enlarge my vision and see greater possibility in my own situation. Sometimes the pressures of our personal struggle leave us with a very narrow vision and we often can’t see our own way out. It has been very helpful to me over the years to follow the struggles, growth & success of others to help me get past the false limitations & boundaries my own circumstance.

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  • Brooke Hardwick Writer

    I have a post that I have saved in drafts for a very long time. I keep telling myself they’re just words. Time to press publish http://www.thewritelife.com.au

  • Inquisitive

    Sometimes people think that by writing/talking about our sad stories, we are trying to gain sympathy. How do you counteract that? One way I could think of is obviously not to care too much about others and to be true to oneself, but sometimes the whole thing gets a bit dicey and negative when people label you as an attention seeker or a cry baby. What suggestions do you have to balance our sad stories in a way that inspires others?

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I think the story had to be redemptive. There has be hope for the reader. It’s not just you telling your sob story. It’s sharing something ugly to reveal a deeper beauty.

  • http://www.ritesofasylum.com Abbie Driscoll

    Amen, Jeff! Manning is one of my favorite authors and examples. I think this is such a necessary conversation to have – especially in the internet age where we can present ourselves in whatever ways we want to our online audiences. It is so incredibly freeing when I can be brave enough to be my truest, messiest self and people embrace me anyway. Thanks!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Yes! I totally agree. :)

  • Jill

    I read this book several years ago and it rocked me the same as you Jeff! I recently watched Ragumuffinthe movie depicting singer/songwriter Rich Mullins life and was elated to see that Brennan Manning and Rich had a beautiful friendship! Go watch it on Netflix!

  • http://www.michaelnichols.org/about Michael Nichols

    Great thoughts, Jeff. Years ago a mentor encouraged me to let my mess be my message. Along with the points you made, here’s why we struggle with it – http://www.michaelnichols.org/approval-of-others/.

    Another great book to read is Wild at Heart (particularly for guys with sons), by John Eldredge.

  • http://www.notquitewonderwoman.com April Layne

    Concerning blogs several years ago I read the advice “Readers do not want to see your flaws, the want to escape and see what their life could be and have something to aspire to” or some such nonsense. I thought about how much I like 2 certain popular blogs for their recipes and how to instructions but I want to barf when I waded through all the “I blew the glass jars that I canned my great great grandmothers heritage tomatoes that I grew in soil that I fertilized with my own recycled waste…” and other equally unbelievable post to get there.
    I decided that was bad advice when I started my blog but I still think I might have a hard time not trying to be too polished in how I present myself in my blog. So good advise! And btw how old are you? Lol, because you look about 14. :)

  • Kent Faver

    Brennan is one of my favorite writers, but I have not gotten to this one yet – thanks Jeff. In Posers, Fakes and Wannabes (not sure if that is in correct order), Brennan recommends another memoir written in the 80’s – Traveler toward the Dawn by the late John Eagin, which I bought and would say it was a top 5 read for me this year. As well as Brennan writes, I am even more mesmerized by his talks on You Tube.

  • leejennatyler

    I have been hiding some awful events in my life; covering them up with a smile and humor. I have also found my salvation in God through these trials. Something I plan on writing but always kept from my blog “to remain professional”. This is a profound awakening for me.
    Thank you for this, Jeff.