Writing honestly requires being honest with yourself, first. Digging into the motivations beneath the rationalizations. Noticing and confessing the beliefs and habits we often sweep under the proverbial carpet.
In Would I Lie to You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies, Judi Ketteler does this work and writes honestly in a way that inspires us as readers to do the same. She travels a brave path and takes readers along for the ride. And I am so excited to interview Judi about traveling that path of writing honestly and exploring honesty in a deep and powerful way. As a writer yourself, I think you will find much to think about and powerful advice and insights in this interview.
I’ve been on Judi’s email list since 2014 and I still love getting her emails. Her newsletters ALWAYS tell a story. They draw me in and captivate. So I wasn’t surprised when on op/ed she wrote for the New York Times about telling the truth the your kids went viral.
She writes about important questions and explores those questions from many angles. Her writing is smart, funny, authentic and vulnerable. As a reader, I feel like I know Judi, because she truly invites me into her world through her writing.
So, when her book, Would I Lie to You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies, came out, I read it immediately. And then, I just had to interview her and ask the many questions that came up for me, and that I knew my readers would love to hear.
So, here’s an interview about book writing, and truth in writing, and truth in life and so much more—with the wonderful Judi Ketteler:
LISA: Would I Lie to You? grew out of an op-ed you wrote for the New York Times. It’s not uncommon for an article that goes viral, or gets a good deal of response, to prompt a book. How did you decide that there really might be a book in these ideas?
JUDI: As I was working on the article, I realized there was so much more to say. Writers tend to get a nagging feeling when we are writing something that we know is a much bigger story than the 1,000 words we have been allotted. I also wasn’t nearly finished with the topic when I handed the story in. In truth, I had barely scratched the surface of honesty. I had so much more to work through, and a book seemed the best way to do it.
LISA: That’s a great reason—an internal knowingness. Your book came out of an experiment. Were you scared when you first took on the idea? If so, what were you afraid of?
JUDI: I was a bit scared of where it might lead me, but my curiosity was stronger. I heard this saying at a conference several years ago and I keep it on the Notes app on my phone: “You only have to be 1 percent more curious than your fear to do something.”
I have learned to follow my curiosity, trusting that I will figure things out along the way. I also think that I had no choice but to write my way through all the things I was dealing with in my life regarding honesty. Writing is how I process and make sense of my life and the world. It’s always a weird thing for people who do a lot of introspective, first-person writing whether we are writing down the reality we see before us, or writing something down to make it reality. Either way, throwing myself into writing about honesty, as I was practicing honesty and noticing my honesty choices, seemed the only way to save myself.
Writing Honestly About a Marriage, Family and Others
LISA: In Would I Lie to You? there is a great deal of personal information about your marriage and your husband. You mention how your husband is unusual in not worrying about what people think of him! How did you and your husband work out, though, what you would—and would not—share in the book? Was it a process of negotiation? Did he encourage you?
JUDI: He gave his blessing for me to write about our marriage and he read everything I wrote about our relationship. I would never have written it if he hadn’t. Anyone who reads the book will probably see that he is a different kind of person, and his reactions aren’t necessarily typical of men. That is, I’m sure, what attracted me to him!
In fact, I anticipate some readers will think I created him as a character. I assure you, I didn’t! He is a wonderful and quirky human being and was able to see so many things about our marriage that I wasn’t able to see, until I started digging deeper. I would say that he doesn’t feel the need to share the story himself, but he has no problem with me sharing it. He sees the issues we dealt with as just a normal part of marriage, not something to be hidden away or ashamed about.
That said, it was hard to write about my relationship with him—and with the other man—and it took several attempts. I had to keep peeling layers back, revealing things that were painful and embarrassing. I would realize that I was glossing over something and suddenly I would see it from the reader’s point of view, sensing that my reader would know there must be more to it and that I wasn’t, in fact, being honest. So then I would go back and reveal a bit more, and then a bit more.
I also made sure the other man had the chance to see everything I wrote and was okay with it. He saw a few different drafts and never once raised any objections. The day before I turned the book in, I had lunch with him and I asked one more time, “Are you sure?” and he said something like, “Yes it’s scary, but I’m so glad you wrote the story and I want you to share it.”
Ultimately, if I wasn’t going to write about both relationships honestly, then it wasn’t worth writing the book at all.
LISA: In the book, you share a bit about your concerns about your kids seeing some of the very personal information you share in the book. Can you take us through that process a bit and how you came to terms with it?
JUDI: I definitely second-guessed how much information I shared about my children and the conversations I had with them. I walked them through what I wrote, very high level, and they pretty much shrugged and said, “Whatever, Mom. Can I go watch TV now?” They are young though, and I am more aware each day of who they are in the world, especially as they become digital citizens. I worry about their privacy, of course. If they had told me flat out not to write something, I wouldn’t have. Whenever you write something personal that involves other people—especially people you love—you want to make sure you do right by them. You still want to write your own truth though. It’s a delicate balance, and readers will think what they will think about how I’ve done it. I can’t control that. I certainly gave it all very careful thought though.
LISA: I can only speak for myself, but I think the way you went about it with great integrity. Were there any people who were not on board at first with having their story told and then came around? How did that process work?
JUDI: I asked permission from anyone where I was telling a story they told to me (both the silly stories and the serious stories) and then I sent them what I had written about them. Everyone I asked said yes, and no one asked me to make any substantial changes to what I had written.
LISA: One profound strength of Would I Lie to You? is the raw honesty and vulnerability of it. You go deep in terms of exploring the more hidden ways in which we lie to ourselves and others. Did you have any fears about how people would react to such honesty? How did you deal with that?
JUDI: Yes, of course. The hardest part is knowing that people you know, but who don’t know you that well, are going to read it. For example, I was talking recently with a newish client (my main business is content marketing writing and content strategy for hospitals) and he knew I had written a book. He told me he was eager to read it. I had this moment where I wanted to say, “Uh, maybe don’t?” But instead, I laughed and said, “Well, you’re going to know a whole lot about me then!” About a week later, we were on the phone and he said, “Judi, I have to tell you, I finished your first chapter last night. I loved it. But you were right, I know a lot about you!” We laughed and he’s a cool guy and it’s all fine.
LISA: It speaks to a certain kind of bravery that it took to write a book like this in the first place. And I’m guessing it might close some doors with a potential client or two but that it also will open doors in new ways you haven’t even realized yet.
JUDI: Close friends and family members mostly already know the stories I tell in the book, so I’m not so stressed about them reading. My mom read it in like a day and called to tell me how much she loved it, and you can bet I was relieved! (And in fact, in that moment, I was like, from here on out, nothing else will compare to my momma loving what I wrote!) And complete strangers who don’t know me at all? Doesn’t bother me. But there is a strange “universes colliding” feeling I get when I think about clients, neighbors, or extended family members and in-laws reading it. But as the kids say, there are no “take-backs.” It’s out there for all to see.
Advice for Writing Honestly: What to Share—or Not
LISA: What advice might you give a writer whose book is very vulnerable and personal? How would you suggest navigating the territory of what to share and what not to share?
JUDI: I used to say, “Don’t share what you haven’t processed yourself.” But I’ve revised that over the years, because I’ve realized that, for me, writing and sharing is what helps me process.
My rule now that I won’t share something (in a book or essay) if my main reason for sharing is that I want validation from someone else. I think I heard Brené Brown say something like, “Don’t share your story if what you think about your story is contingent upon how other people respond.”
I could never have written this book five years ago when I was spinning around in judgment of myself, because I wouldn’t have been ready yet. If you are still judging yourself for something, you haven’t let go and what other people say is just going to wreck you. So wait a bit longer.
LISA: What advice do you have for writers about writing truth and dealing with the worry of whether or not they got it “right” or told the “whole” story?
JUDI: Write it all first, without checking yourself, and then walk away for a while. Don’t be in a rush. Go back to it several times. Get enough distance to consider it the way a reader would read it, not just as the writer. It was when I did this that I realized there were truths I wasn’t quite telling, or on the flip side, things that were gratuitous and distracting.
I’m also of the mindset that a lot of different stories can be true at once, and you have to just pick the one you want to tell, and understand why it’s the one you’re telling. It means that the other true stories won’t get told that day, but maybe you come back to them and peel off another slice. I’ve gotten more comfortable with this idea because I write so many essays. I have a regular essay column at Cincinnati Magazine where I am continually mining my life and experiences. I’ve come to understand that the pieces I write are just slices. Nothing is really the “whole” story.
Reactions and Impact of Writing Honestly
LISA: What are some of the reactions you’ve been getting from readers to the raw honesty you display? Are you hearing from people who are empowered to tell the truth to themselves and others in new ways? Any particular story to share about this?
JUDI: A reader sent me a message and told me this wonderful story about how she could now see the importance of the prosocial lies we tell, especially the ones other people tell her. She said she was getting a medical test and started crying in the middle of the test and the nurse assured her that it happened “all the time.” She was so grateful in that moment for the nurse saying that, even though she knew that it probably didn’t happen all the time.
Her message went on to say that she looks at everything differently now and that the book has challenged her to look more closely at her interactions with others. That is exactly what I intended—to create a person-by-person ripple effect. A big sea of growing awareness that we can all do better and that “the world” is really just all of us.
It’s funny too, because in my circle, I’ve been “the honesty person” for a few years now. Friends, colleagues, and family members often tell me that they suddenly notice their honesty choices. They’ll tell me, “I thought about you, Judi, and what you would say!” I’m honored that I have made people think! But really, it isn’t at all about what I would say, it’s about that inner voice of theirs that they are more tuned into now.
LISA: Did you get any haters and what do you do about them?
JUDI: Oh, of course. The very first review on Amazon was negative. It read like a cranky middle school English teacher who needs to retire. He took me to task for my grammar, of all things! Naturally, I’ve gotten hate from some Trump supporters. I don’t think the particular Trump people who have left nasty reviews or sent me messages even read the book. I think they just assume that a book about lying is all about Trump, which is pretty interesting since the book only references his election as a touch point and isn’t actually about him at all.
There have been other mean-spirited reviews, or just reviews from people who aren’t exactly haters, but feel the need to publicly state that they don’t like the book and it wasn’t what they expected. I’ve written for the New York Times for several years now, so I’m used to dealing with a ton of crazy reader comments on my essays. I can’t pretend that I don’t notice or it doesn’t bother me, but I look at it as part of the cycle of sharing. You put it out there, and some people are going to be jerks. It hurts, you grieve it, and then tomorrow is another day.
LISA: What are some of the most empowering insights you’ve had about yourself after writing a book on truth telling and lies? How has the book impacted your writing overall?
JUDI: One of the most interesting insights I had, which seems like complete common sense now, is that the end of a book is in no way the end of a journey. Writing the book represented this moment in time for me. Doing this work changed many things about how I communicate and think, but it’s just the beginning, not the end. With honesty, there are so many times that you won’t get it right. So many times when you will be led by a bias. So many times when your self-interest will take center stage. We’re never “cured” of those things, but there is such power in noticing. That is the key thing that’s different about me now. I think I’ve always been good at looking at situations from multiple angles. Now, I have yet one more lens to do it, in both my writing and my relationships.
LISA: What’s your creative process like?
JUDI: I’m not kidding when I say exercise is the key to my creative process. I’ve been a runner for 25 years and run four times a week. I also do yoga several times a week, and sometimes I swim laps too.
There is something about exercise that opens my mind up. Things just seem to drop into my head while running. I’ll make connections between ideas, or suddenly realize what the main point of a piece should be. I was doing this wonderful long run in December, thinking about my next column for Cincinnati Magazine, and suddenly this title, “Books and Cats,” came to me. I wasn’t sure what the piece would be, but I could start to see the shape of it. I came home, showered, and sat my butt in my chair and wrote, and then refined over a few weeks.
The bottom line is, once I have the idea, I have to then do the work of developing the idea. Sometimes that’s quick, or sometimes it happens in 20-minute increments in between other work. That’s pretty typically how it works for me, and this is how I wrote the book. Run, think, write, repeat repeat repeat, for about a year.
The work I do for clients is creative, too, just more structured and in its own lane. But most of these same things apply: I get the ideas while running and then I come home and execute on them. I get less ideas while doing yoga, but yoga—and all the crazy hard acrobatic poses I like to do in my practice (I used to be a gymnast)—helps me remember that doing hard things is fun, but requires exquisite focus.
LISA: Any creativity tips for our readers?
JUDI: Start running or doing yoga! Okay, kidding—kind of. Just find a way to get out of your head. I think creativity is this careful balance of opening up your mind to let the ideas come in, and then putting the time and work in to deliver the ideas into the world, in whatever your medium is. For me, moving my body is the conduit.
LISA: I am so with you on this! I’ve been adding some bonus classes to my book writing program, where, rather than teaching, we all get on a zoom call, do a little deep breathing, a little movement that’s yoga-inspired or qigong-inspired and then write. The writers are loving it and finding it helps them with both productivity, creativity and enjoyment of the process. It’s great for unblocking, if that’s an issue.
How to Research a Book and Interview Experts
LISA: You did lots of research and spoke to some of the biggest authorities in deception research, as well as philosophers, etiquette experts, and organizational psychologists. As a journalist you’re probably quite comfortable interviewing experts, but were there any challenges here?
JUDI: For this book, I talked to some of the smartest people about their research and their ideas, and then worked to translate it all for readers, so it made sense how it applied to their lives. I have always loved doing this, and I think I’m quite good at it. But still, I always worry about whether or not I got it right.
In writing the book, one way I controlled for that was to let all the people I interviewed review the sections of the book where I discussed their research or ideas. That was immensely helpful. Publishers generally don’t fact check. It’s up to the author, and I tried to be as rigorous as possible.
LISA: How about interviewing people about their stories. How do you get people to open up?
JUDI: I don’t have an exact answer, but I know that I have a quality that makes people comfortable telling me things. I think because I listen closely and empathy is a key value for me, people feel safe. When someone is telling you their story, you have to be present and listen without any agenda. It’s different from interviewing researchers or experts, where there is definitely an agenda and a key thing you are trying to get. With talking to people about their experiences, you have to let all that go and meet them where they are.
LISA: What advice do you have to our readers about interviewing experts?
JUDI: Be prepared. Do your homework. Read about them, and read as many primary sources of theirs as you can (pieces they’ve written, whether it’s op-eds in the popular press or research studies). If you’re getting stuck on understanding the study (which happens to me all the time), look for press releases from their university or hospital (or whatever organization they are affiliated with) that talk about the research and explain it for the general public. This was invaluable to me.
LISA: Any other advice about interviewing people in general, for anecdotes or information in a book?
JUDI: Most of the anecdotes I shared in the book came about from me simply listening out in conversations (and then, of course, circling back with people to make sure it was okay to share what they told me). My advice is to always have an ear out. This actually drives my husband crazy, because I’m easily intrigued by people and their stories. We’ll be together and I will find myself in “interview” mode with someone, and we’ll just be trying to like order food at Chipotle or something! Curiosity is everything. It leads me, and I follow it.
LISA: Any other research tips?
JUDI: With the democratization of information, it’s never been easier to find research studies. PubMed is an amazing resource! As is YouTube. You wouldn’t believe how much I learned from watching channels like “Three Minute Philosophy.” It’s still important to talk to primary sources! But you can learn so much ahead of time, in a lot of different mediums. I think researchers and doctors are even taking to creating content on TikTok now!
Judi Ketteler has been writing stories since she was old enough to hold a pencil. She got her professional start working as a copywriter for a small agency, but has been a full-time freelance writer since 2002. An award-winning essayist, she has contributed to dozens of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Runner’s World, and Women’s Health.
She is also the author of two books about sewing. Judi has a B.A. in English from Northern Kentucky University, and an M.A. in English from Miami University of Ohio. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children, where she enjoys running, yoga, and doing flips on the trampoline. Find her at judiketteler.com, on Twitter: @judiketteler; Instagram: @ketteljm