I Really Should Be Writing, But …

“But a good writing day ought to be simply any day you worked. … The hell with all that anxiety about what may or may not come when you do work. Quit expecting it to dance for you. It’s not about you, finally. It’s about itself.”  Richard Bausch, The Writer’s Chronicle, March/April 2014, p. 20 (more…)

Writing and Fear (A Reblog of a Reblog of Sorts)

This morning I had the good fortune to come across this post from Dave at According to Dave.  He shares a post from a NaNoWriMo forum.  You can read the original post at http://nanowrimo.org/en/forums/reaching-50-000/threads/114149, or go to Dave’s blog for the full text.  In short, the post is about a fear that many writers have:  the fear of being thought ridiculous.  Not unskilled, not inexperienced, but ridiculous as in your writing can be “laughed at, scorned, lampooned.”

I’m currently participating in Camp NaNoWriMo and am going through the usual “this novel is s**t” roadblock.  And I recognize the fear that the poster writes about, the fear that makes me question every page, every paragraph, every word I type.  I know I’ve written about this in other posts of mine and in comments about writing workshops and the like, but apparently it’s not a dead subject for me.

In a college-level workshop that I took about 20 years ago, one of my stories–the ending, specifically–was laughed at, mocked.  The mocking was led by the professor and I assume since he was known for getting young writers hooked up with agents and publishers, some students took his cue to impress him.  At least one student saw the devastation and humiliation writ large on my face and tried to comfort me later.  I’ll admit the ending was melodramatic and the story had a lot of problems overall.  But I’m not convinced it was necessary to humiliate me.

Ironically, my final story for that semester was one that the professor crowed about, to the point of introducing me to someone important (an agent, maybe?  a publisher?) at a writing conference.  If he was offering me an opportunity at that point, I missed it because I couldn’t reconcile his willingness to humiliate with his willingness to praise one and the same writer.  I remember standing in the room, between him and this important person, and being dumbstruck because I hadn’t anticipated his praise.  I had no 3-minute elevator pitch.  I had nothing.  I just smiled at him.  I might have said thank you. They walked away.  The important person was obviously unimpressed.

Although the wound still aches and I still fight the fear of being found unworthy, of being found a figure for ridicule, I also now feel unimpressed by the professor and his connections.  I realize that some of the dynamic in that workshop, in that whole writing program, was based largely on his influence, his power to anoint the next “golden boy” or “golden girl” writer.  It wasn’t to guide us into becoming better writers, but for him to find the diamonds in the rough and nurture them.  Like many in academia, professors seek out those students who make them look good.

Fortunately this professor was not my only access to guidance.  And I did learn a lot in his workshop, technically speaking.  It’s a sorry state to be past my mid-fifties and still coming to a near froth over that experience.  But it’s time to move on, to write my “ridiculous” novel, if that is what it is, to take a cue from a young woman who, although still afraid, “cannot shut [her] mouth from shouting the music that has swelled in [her] lungs.”

Using Fear To Write

Here’s an interesting take on “writing what you know.” In the June 11, 2013 issue of The New York Times, author Sarah Jio writes about how one night of abject terror helps her to write about fear. For the first time, in this essay, she writes about that night and goes on to explain how the memory of the terror she felt helps her write about fear that occurs in other contexts.

During most of my writing life, I’ve been given the same advice–“Write what you know”–albeit with a twist now and then–“Write what you want to know.” Jio’s essay now gives me another way to think about writing. I was starting to wonder why the theme of loneliness runs through so much of my writing. It’s an existential loneliness born out of people growing apart or never really being together in the first place. It’s a loneliness that comes from never feeling you belong, no matter your DNA, no matter the size of your family, no matter how many friends you have on Facebook. It’s a loneliness I’ve sensed in other people, sensed to the point where I would want to weep for them. It’s a loneliness that I’ve felt as a child and again as an adult. It’s acute, it’s chronic, it may never fully leave me and it can at times be terrifying.

Like Jio, I only revisit those painful feelings when I’m trying to write about them; otherwise, I don’t want to remember.  That is the catharsis of writing:  even though I may not want to remember, when I get in touch with those awful feelings and let them flow from my heart, through my fingers, to the keyboard, there is a sense of relief and even gratitude that I can do something with those feelings of loneliness and fear.  Writing helps me to make sense of them, to understand how loneliness can drive someone to do things he or she would not otherwise do.  Ultimately, writing from those feelings helps me to understand the people (characters) that live in my head.  Once I let them go (and out onto the page), I feel lighter in my heart and stronger in my mind.

And, how about you, Dear Writer? Are there events in your life that you turn to over and over again to inform your writing? Do you, as Jio advises, “write what frightens you, haunts you, even”?

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