Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Risk
"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom."—Anaïs Nin
This morning, a great blue heron lands on the rooftop outside my office window. Its legs are sticks, belly oblong, neck a cobra. It stands on one foot. I see its feathers lifting in the wind, its beak opening and closing. It shifts from foot to foot, then pushes off into the sky. Every moment a risk, a trust, a commitment.
I was first introduced to the concept of risk in writing in graduate school. The memoirist Michael Datcher was giving a seminar where he discussed the psychological fallout from a book. He said that everything you write, if it is authentic, will have fallout, and then he asked us, "What are you willing to risk to tell your stories?" And he implied that if we played it safe, hedged our bets, we were doing a disservice to our art. He wanted us to metaphorically slice ourselves open and see what oozed out. I've never forgotten that lecture, partly because it had never occurred to me that I needed to make myself so vulnerable. It's an obvious concept now, but at the time, I had very little idea what he was actually talking about. In retrospect, I see that this element of personal risk is what is missing from virtually all "failed" writing attempts. The writer tries to play it safe, tries to couch what he's doing in layers of deep, often beautifully phrased crap. The reader spots this right away, though she may not be able to articulate what she's picking up. She only knows she's lost interest. The writing teacher needs to be able to point out—hey, this is a little thick here, don't you think? What if you cut out these first ten, twenty pages and started with this feeling here? The author usually begins formulating resistance to this idea right away. That's OK. The writer, if he is to write, will move through that resistance, find the feeling, and expand upon it.
To nonwriters, personal risk in writing sounds very bizarre. After all, we're not ice climbing or running the Colorado River in a raft made of three planks. We're sitting down and moving our hands. Not so much risk there. But the risk of writing is an internal risk. You brave the depths of your own being and then, oh my, bring it back up for commentary by the world. Not the work of wimps.
Many writers would likely rather climb Mt. Fuji than go in there, but in there is precisely where you must go. And here's the kicker—you can't really prepare for what's in there because you don't know all that's in there. You can research hiking conditions on Mt. Fuji. You can bring proper equipment. You can make sure your body is in appropriate shape. In short, you can make a plan. But you can't map out the inner world ahead of time; you can only tell us what you experienced after you've been there and returned. Each time you go, you'll find something new. As you explore, reflect, and write on what you're finding, you'll be shown new things. "Oh, I thought I was done with that," doesn't really exist in there. There's always a level beneath. Your writing will tell you what you're mining in there, but you can't usually see it at the time.
Think of your work, no matter what genre, as a dialogue first with yourself. You don't come out with these dialogues and publish them as is, straight from in there. That's for your eyes only. But you can take the belly of what you bring back, craft it, and put it out in the world. The reader will recognize that you've been on the journey, even if she can't identify what the journey is. The reader will know that you risked it all; and she will stick with the story.
Take a moment to lie down on your back on the floor. If your back is tender, you can bend your knees and keep the soles of your feet on the floor, or you can put a pillow underneath your knees. Allow your arms to rest beside you, palms up. Close your eyes. You may wish to place an eye pillow over your eyes if you have difficulty keeping them closed. Lie here as long as you like. This is a place of deep relaxation and awareness. You are not asleep, but you are still.
Why? This posture helps stimulate the imagination. Also, because you're on your back, your heart is open, allowing you to experience both vulnerability and surrender. Your body is experiencing a place of safe openness—a place of trust from which you can dare to risk.
I often write on student papers, "What is at stake for your protagonist? Why here? Why now?" These are important characterization questions to consider. What is the urgency of that story? Why is it imperative that you begin the story in that place and time, rather than in the following day or in a neighboring city? If you find that you could enter your story dream at any random spot, then likely you have focus issues to think about. We choose the point of entry into our stories based on the impact we want to create for the reader. There is only one point of entry for every story. To change that point of entry changes the story.
These questions also apply to the writer. Why here? Why now? What is the urgency in this story for me? What do I want to learn, uncover, discover, about life or myself? Some stories have more obvious answers to these questions than others. But what of the novelist who has a persistent pull toward tulips, or who hears the whisperings of an old man in her ear? Does she know what she's risking? Likely not at the beginning, but the risk will become evident through the writing. If there is nothing at stake for the author, there won't be enough energy to sustain a longer project. Novels have a defining question that gets resolved at the end. If the writer knows all the answers along the way, there is no joy of the discovery.
There are levels of risk. A person who has never shared work out loud before is taking a huge risk simply by offering her words. But a writer who has been writing for many years, producing and sharing, must continue to go down deep in her heart and keep excavating the things that haunt her. She must continue to challenge herself so her work will challenge others. Writing is both an act of power and surrender. Passion and discovery. It is a tug at your soul that continues to pull you forward, even as you go kicking and screaming.
When you discover what you're risking, you may "block." Understand that it is not the writing itself that is blocked. The term "writer's block" shifts the responsibility away from the author onto the writing. The writing is not blocked from you. You are blocking the writing. This is a very empowering reframing. If you're doing the blocking, then you can do the unblocking. No more waiting on the great god of writing to release the faucet of inspiration. How liberating!
The first step when you find yourself stuck is to become aware of what is being blocked. What point have you reached in your work? What is the next scene, next poem, next essay? Can you identify some piece of the next step that contains something you might not be ready or willing to address yet? Writing has a sneaky way of pushing us out of our comfort zone. When we "let loose," like a Bengal tiger, it goes right for the raw meat. We set up our defenses and then hope for a quick diversion from the center of our stories. But we can't continue to do that and still be in service to our projects. Our work deserves our full attention, our presence, and our commitment.
I've noticed that the closer I get to the heart of the story, the quicker and more solid the "block" seems to feel. Over time, I've observed this pattern in myself, and so I recognize it for what it is: a fear-based pattern. I don't want to sit in my chair and write these stories because they affect the way I am feeling, so I won't. That's the block. And I can do something about that. There is no secret code to breaking through the blocks, but there is one surefire way, and it's the way no one really wants to use, but it works. Write. Stay with the discomfort. Stay with the uncertainty. Stay with the emotions that a scene or a memory might conjure up for you. Stay with the work. It'll guide you back home.
1. Journal for at least fifteen minutes on each of the following prompts:
- When I am at a crossroads, I . . .
- Change means . . .
- Fear means . . .
- Risk means . . .
2. Strong writing is concrete writing. Look back over your four journal responses and identify the abstract idea in each one. Then create a concrete image for that abstraction. Using a fresh piece of paper, begin a new creative piece starting with one or more of the concrete images you've come up with. For example, if one of your abstract ideas for "change" is "it's scary," take "it's scary" and find a concrete image for it, such as "the crawlspace smelled of skunk and ashes." Begin a new piece with the specific image and see where it takes you.
3. Freewrite a list of fears and/or reasons why you are not always truthful in your writing. If all of those reasons came to pass, what would happen?