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  • Writer's pictureLissa Cowan

How to Be a Reliable Narrator (of your Writing Life)

Updated: May 14, 2021

Have you ever considered that you may be an unreliable narrator of your writing life?

“I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible,” says 16-year-old Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye.

J.D. Salinger's protagonist accuses others of phoniness yet doesn't look at his own phoniness, and as this quote shows, he's also a big liar. Narrators that lack objectivity are called unreliable, hence the term unreliable narrator.

An unreliable narrator is someone whose credibility is compromised and therefore what he, she or they say must be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes it's obvious right away that a narrator is unreliable, however there are many cases where the character has win our trust only to deceive us at the story's end. There are many types of reliable narrators such as ones who brag, one's who are crazy (e.g., American Psycho), the clown (e.g., Tristram Shandy), and the liar.

Yet what about unreliable narrators in your own life? Are there negative voices you hear in your head when you sit down to write?

What are these voices saying? Is it stuff like, You can't do this? You've no time? Who will want to read this? Has it ever occurred to you that this unreliable narrator may not be telling the truth about you, and that it doesn't have your best interests at heart?

A. Write down four things that your inner unreliable narrator is saying to you when you sit down to write.





Sometimes the unreliable narrator of our writing lives doesn't appear right away. Though as we delve deeper into our creative work, the voice or voices often grow in strength. Yet rather than tell the unreliable narrator to take a hike, perhaps we can learn something from this person.

In The Catcher and the Rye, though highly unreliable, the protagonist teaches us that we're human. At some point in our lives, we've all doubted--all of us have been frustrated or afraid.

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.

B. Write down four things that your unreliable narrator can teach you about yourself.





Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, said that our shadow selves hold the key to our creativity: “In spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” Jung believed that to really know who we are we need to delve into the darkness of our own psyches. The worst thing we can do is to pretend our negative voices don’t exist, as they'll only revisit us later with more potency.

Recognizing the unreliable narrator when she appears, learning from her, and letting her know that you're going to continue writing and doing your thing no matter what, will eventually take away her power to harm you.

I admit this is easier said than done.

Here are some tricks to identify and eventually take away the power of your unreliable narrator to harm you and sabatoge your writing process. The last two will help you to gradually become a reliable narrator of your life.

1. Ask yourself why you went to such lengths to carve out an hour to write and then spent all the time on Facebook. Did your unreliable narrator whisper in your ear that what you're doing doesn't matter? Did she tempt you by telling you that doing something else would be more fun?

2. When you feel yourself second-guessing your writing and feeling out-of-flow, poke around your head and see if your unreliable narrator is lurking somewhere in a dark corner.

3. Ask her, him or they to come into the light and tell you what's the matter. What's the unreliable narrator afraid of?

4. Write down some characteristics of your unreliable narrator such as her personality, tone of her voice, hair colour, what she wears, hobbies (besides tormenting you!). All of these descriptions will give you clues about who she is, how she got and maintains power over you. It may seem strange to describe her so clearly, but this may help you to eventually disarm her.

5. Who would you be if you only listened to your reliable narrator--you know, the one aligned to your higher purpose? The one who says, you're doing the best you can...Good for you for showing up today! Look at you; you took some time today to write!

6. Write down some messages your reliable narrator says to help you reach your purpose in life. Post them on your bulletin board. Sing them; shout them out!

7. Each day, pledge to make more space for your reliable narrator. Give her some room to breathe, to play, to create.

Writing prompts are great for developing a writing habit and for tapping into your creative fire. You know you want to! It's only 10 minutes long with some chitchat at the beginning and end. A very short amount of talking, I promise.

Photo credits: Cover photo: Timothy I. Brock. Sign creations:

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