Words on the Street, Revisited #14: I’ll Be Honest With You…

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


“Why do you think you say that so often before you say what you really want to say?” Laurel, my new and first-ever therapist, asked me in or around 1991. I was in my early-20s, trying to find my place, my way, my path during a rough and tumble patch with my father.

“Say what?” I replied

“I’ll be honest with you. You begin a lot of your sentences with that expression. Do you hear yourself say it, too?”

That landed hard. And I was confused.

No, I didn’t hear myself say it. So of course, I said, “Oh yeah, I do hear it, I see what you mean.”

And I’m sure you are not surprised to know what Laurel said next: “Okay, let’s look at that.”

And then, in her smooth voice that sounded the way a soft chenille throw blanket looks when draped perfectly on a velvet couch, she asked me one more question, “Why do you think you feel the need to say it?”

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure,” I may have said in response.


There are more than a handful of other things I have not forgotten from the time I spent on Laurel’s couch. She helped shape and ground a lot for me in those early twenty-something years when I was navigating a social work career, marriage and motherhood in addition the everyday stuff of being a human in this world. (And, as we know, the world vibe has amped up a bit since the early-90s.)

But back to, I’ll be honest with you…

I didn’t stop cold turkey. I couldn’t. And I’m pretty sure I still say it here and there when I forget about the illuminations that surfaced in Laurel’s office. Musing on it now as well as hearing it out “on the street” (in conversations, interviews, podcasts and ordinary dialogue) prompt wonder about writing and truth and the way we use language on and off the page.

I still think about what it means to cue a listener or a reader to my (or a character’s) reinforcement that what is about to be said is true. Does it indicate a penchant for telling untruths? This resonates with me because growing up with a very strict father who issued very strict rules meant that I got very creative with truths.

Translation: I lied. A lot. Especially as a teenager.

Or rather, is saying it just a way to indicate hesitation yet connection?  A way to say, “Hey, we are close here, maybe even like family. I’m not lying. I’m telling the truth!”

Have you ever constructed or reviewed a draft of your work with believability in mind? In a sense it is a way to channel that I’ll be honest with you energy into the crafting and editing process. And to use it!

In this spirit, here are some strategies to explore on the page:

  1. Write a conversation between two characters who are grappling with a sticky situation at work. One is insecure and lacks confidence in communicating and one is more direct. Notice the language you use, how many cues come up and the kind of prefacing that you create for each person.

  2.  Think about a time you lied. Pay close attention to your memory of both the sensory recollections (beating heart, darting eyes, sweaty palms, fast talking or something else) and record those in list form. Next, mine the words and language you remember from that episode and jot those down, in list form. Then, make a list of any other critical memories: setting, season, specifics. Once you have these lists in place write the story.

  3. Consider how critical or gullible you are as a reader. As an exercise try reading a few short pieces from different sources and pay attention to what draws you in and what prompts you to question. Is it voice? How ideas and facts are offered? Whether storytelling strategies are employed? Now, use this exercise to write a piece that captivates with language and a voice that you hope will keep the reader engaged.

  4. Think about an expression you use a lot in your everyday speech that has a similar quality to I’ll be honest with you. Some others might be: Seriously. For real. If I’m being honest. I swear. Consider the influence not only on your everyday language (in work or play) but also whether you use that energy when you go to the blank page.

There is also a whole other road we, as writers (particularly memoirists and creative nonfiction scribes) can take the truth/untruth discussion but I’ll save that for another column. And, I’ll be honest with you, it’s a hefty conversation so I’m not even sure where to begin.

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