20 Ways to Make It Better — Way #5

Take Risks

Writing means taking risks. If you’re not willing to take the risks, chances are your writing will be bland and boring – even to yourself. It takes courage to take such risks. Risk-taking can lead to self-discovery. Taking risks means there is the possibility of learning a truth about yourself. Maybe something you didn’t want to know.

But most likely we’ll never discover a truth about ourselves that is too terrible to bear. We only fear we will. Or that we will expose something of ourselves to others that will be too terrible for them to bear, and we will be judged, perhaps rejected.

Sue Grafton warned us: “Often the writing process is filled with a sense of jeopardy.” But if you don’t risk anything, you risk everything.

My writing teacher told us “stay in the room.” Meaning, don’t let your characters or yourself leave the scene before it’s complete. In real life when there’s danger or conflict the safest action may be to hightail it, but in writing, safety is not a desired ingredient. So even if you have to take a few deep breaths and write paragraphs around what you need to say, “stay in the room” until you’ve written it. I once heard a story about a writer who tied the silk belt of his dressing gown to the arms of his chair so he would stay with it.

Interestingly enough, it is sometimes easier to take risks in writing when you’re writing in a group. Safety in numbers? Also, listening to the risks others take in their writing can mark a trail to your own cliff edges.

Risk writing something different—a different genre, write long if you always write short pieces, and vice versa, try fiction if you usually write nonfiction. Play with a twist on your usual style, a voice that’s been speaking to you in dreams. Take a chance on making a fool of yourself, writing something really badly (the first time). Risk telling the truth.

Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.”

Take courage, be brave. It’s in taking the risks we find our true and honest voice.


How is Popcorn like Writing?

One late Friday night not long ago, when I was preparing a manuscript for a group, or prepping a presentation for a workshop, or meeting some kind of a deadline that loomed like a tsunami on Saturday morning’s horizon, a friend called to check in on me.

“What’d you have for dinner?” he asked. He’s a man who knows about such things as cooking salmon in parchment and layering seared scallops atop little houses of shaved carrots, sprinkling the whole thing with 10-year-old Balsamic vinegar.

box of popcorn“Popcorn,” I said.

He laughed. It sounded derisive, like a snort. “That’s like filling up on air.”

I was glad I hadn’t mentioned the M&Ms.

But his point was taken. Eating popcorn for dinner is a lot like reading a book or story or article that has no depth. It may fill my stomach (or my time), but not with anything of substance or anything that will nourish my life.

How can writing be like popcorn? (Warning: Mixed metaphors ahead.)

Sometimes a writer skates on top of a subject. Or tap-dances around the edges. The writing is glib and clever and absolutely without a trace of depth. After you’ve read it, you feel like you’ve just eaten a bag of popcorn—filled with air. You didn’t get to know the characters, so you didn’t care about them. You didn’t get lost in the story or caught up in any drama. You didn’t get taken to your own depths. So what? you might say when you finish . . .  if you finish. Disappointment is what you’re left with. Like the old song, Is that all there is?

What can get in the way of “going deeper” in your writing?

For starters:

  • Being in a hurry to finish
  • Knowing the end or what happens next, so there are no surprises (You know what they say, No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.)
  • Afraid of boring the reader (who cares about all that?)
  • Or the writer herself is bored (I don’t care about all that.)
  • Afraid of opening a whole can of worms  (if I go there, then I might have to go there. If I write this, it means I have to change that.)

Then there are the fears:

  • Fear of exposure
  • Fear of what might be discovered or revealed
  • Fear of discovering there’s nothing there. That you don’t have a deep place. (Oh, but you do. you do.)
  • Fear of being lost
  • Fear of being vulnerable
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of taking risks
  • Fear of telling secrets
  • Fear of “falling in” and not being able to get out
  • Fear of feeling the feelings
  • Fear of surrendering to the page
  • Fear of the stillness

popcorn piecesAnd all the “nots”

  • Not trusting your intuition
  • Not trusting the process
  • Not trusting your own writer’s voice
  • Not trusting the reader
  • Not focused
  • Not paying attention
  • Not listening (to the story or the characters)
  • Not able to be still

There may be some characteristics that show up in life as well as writing:

  • Lack of curiosity
  • Dishonesty, intentional or otherwise
  • “Settling” (that’s good enough)
  • Lack of passion
  • Lack of commitment

Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.”

Besides courage, it takes time and patience and caring to go deeper in your writing. Be a courageous writer.

P.S. My favorite way of eating popcorn is mixing in a handful of M&Ms when the popcorn is still warm. Yum yum. More popcorn recipes