The Art of Shamelessness: 5 Nonfiction Stories That Exemplify the Beauty of Honesty

The word "shameless" often has a negative connotation—but I've always thought about it a bit differently. Society is all too willing to wrongly assign shame to people, behaviors, and situations, and often, an act that might be given the label of "shameless" could really be an act of honesty, of humanity, or of selflessness. (That's not to say that there aren't things people do wrongly do that they should be ashamed of; however, it's frequently the case that society was wrong to cast judgment.)

Honesty is integral to the fabric of community. Real, shameless, gritty honesty is what brings people together. It’s what makes our favorite TV shows, books, poems, friendships, and loves as warm, powerful, and important to us as they are. There’s just something reflective about reality -- even when it’s dark, damaging, or painful. We see our own lives, our own struggles, our own victories in those of others. And in the trust of that sameness, we connect. 

That quality of shamelessness is what always brings me back to creative nonfiction. I so value the bravery of creative nonfiction writers who are able to bare their souls so that others may see themselves in their lives and connect with them. Even though each person’s story is unique, finding the common threads of humanity in the story of another has so much power. And being able to set fear aside and convey honesty in a way that is equal parts genuine and artistic is an incredible skill.  

When I am my loneliest, I reach for those threads of humanity. Thanks to the unflinching, shameless honesty of these nonfiction stories (and many others), I’ve found them.

1. David Fitzpatrick

“On the outside, I appeared in grand shape that season. I was young and in love with a fabulous girl, hanging out at a beautiful, hip spot with true friends. But inside things were fraying and beginning to fragment. A seed of unrest lay behind my smile.”

Sharp: My Story of Madness, Cutting, and How I Reclaimed My Life

2. Ta-Nehisi Coates

“I did not know then that this is what life is—just when you master the geometry of one world, it slips away, and suddenly again, you’re swarmed by strange shapes and impossible angles.” 

The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir

3. Jennifer Finney Boylan

“Since then, the awareness that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind—never, although my understanding of what it meant to be a boy, or a girl, was something that changed over time.”

She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders

4. Patricia Lockwood

“All my life I have overheard, all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.” 


5. Jhumpa Lahiri

“In a sense, I'm used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.” 

In Other Words