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.


20 Ways to Make It Better — Way #4

#4. Tell The Truth

Every time you write you have an opportunity to tell the truth and sometimes it’s only through writing that you can know the truth. This may be one of the reasons we write in the first place.

Writing a truth sets up a physical commotion: there’s a humming deep in the throat, little hairs on the back of the neck rise and tremble, goose pimples (my grandmother called them “truth bumps”) freckle the arms. Breathing changes. A sudden craving for M&Ms. This is why it’s good to be tuned into your body while you write. “This is important,” it’s saying. “Pay attention.”

As a writer, you must be willing to go to the scary places that cause your hand to tremble and your handwriting to get a little out of control. I can tell when I’m getting to a dangerous place of truth-telling: my handwriting gets smaller and smaller. Once I wrote “scaredy cat” in the margin of my notebook when I saw I was cheating the truth.

We must be willing to tell our secrets, to expose ourselves to ourselves and to be vulnerable on the page. It’s risky but if you don’t write the truth, you’re chancing writing that is glib, shallow or bland.

When I talk about telling the truth, I’m not talking about confessional writing or bringing all the skeletons out of the closets. This isn’t about the condition of anyone’s laundry. It’s about being an honest writer. I’m not referring to the factual truth we expect from journalists either, but an emotional truth. This kind of truth is an intimacy, really, between you and the page, an honesty with yourself and ultimately, with your readers.

Writing the truth is always a challenge to the writer. This is what Andre Dubus said: “While writing — that’s when I face the exposure. . . . That’s when I always have to bear down and try to write as closely to what is the truth as I can feel it with my senses and with my heart.”