5.16.2012

Releasing the Safety Harness


I had the pleasure of listening to John Irving read from and discuss his new novel, IN ONE PERSON, last weekend. I’ve been a long-time fan of Irving’s books—I love his stories and his characters—and it was a treat to see him in person and hear quite a bit about his craft, his process, and his thoughts on writing.  Questions were posed to Irving prior to his talk, so he had time to prepare answers and the final question of the evening was, “What’s the one worst and one best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten and/or can give to other writers.”

In Irving’s opinion, the worst piece of advice for fiction writers is “Write what you know.” Well, as an editor who has time and time again encouraged writers to write what they know, I was taken aback and on the verge of shaking my head in disbelief—until Irving explained himself. Boldly using Hemingway as an example, Irving cited authors who write only characters who are living the life the author has lived, characters who experience only those emotions and feelings the author has felt—and no more; in Irving’s opinion to write only what one knows is boring for the author and therefore going to be boring for the reader.   Whatever one thinks of Hemingway doesn’t matter—though for the record, I will just say I appreciate Hemingway because his stories put me into places and characters so far from what I know. Note, however, I say I “appreciate” Hemingway, which is far different from saying I love Hemingway.  I realized during Irving’s remarks that’s there’s indeed a subtle and significant difference between writing what one knows and writing from what one knows. It’s safe to create characters who mimic our own emotional, psychological, and physical experiences; it’s safe to write characters who have had the childhood we had, who have held the same jobs we have, who like what we like, who feel and express and respond exactly as we do; it’s safe to write characters whom we can predict, whom we know inside and out—because they are us. And, yes, I suspect that if we take a moment to think about it, this kind of writing can be boring—and if it’s boring for the writer, it will be boring for the reader.   Writing from what we know, though, is an entirely different matter—we certainly start with who we are, what we do, what we like, what we feel, but then we dare to change it up, we shake it up, we add to it, we mold it, we ask “What if…?” and we fictionalize—and as we do so, we become more interested in the stories and characters we’re creating because they’re not predictable, they’re not pre-scripted or pre-scribed, they’re fluid, they’re taking us on a journey as much as we’re taking them on a journey.

And then, Irving shared what he feels is the best advice he’s been given and he can share with writers—he quoted Herman Melville, “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall.”  The meanings and definitions of this statement are manifold. And it’s more than just a statement; it’s really a dare to writers and livers of life, isn’t it? Daring us to not play it safe, daring us to push the boundaries, and daring us, finally, to appall.  As he shared with us how he’s applied and continues to apply Melville’s dare to his own books, Irving made clear he feels less concerned about writing to appall the reader than writing to appall himself with his story and characters. “Writers,” he said, “you need to know what is going to appall you about your novel. What are you dreading to write? What’s the inevitable scene that you are dreading; that you know will upset you; that you know you will wrestle with the most? That’s what you need to know is coming and you have to write it.” I must admit, when Irving said this, it sent shivers through me as a writer, as an editor, and as a reader!  Taking the leap. Facing the fear.  Braving the dark. Coming through the horror.  What will appall the storyteller is exactly that which will appall the reader. And the ways in which the storyteller crafts their words to gain control, mastery, and peace over that which appalls is exactly that which will allow the reader to keep reading—emboldening the reader with hope and confidence to control, master, and eventually come to peace with all that appalls in the story—and ultimately in the world. 

What is the worst thing that could happen to your characters or the toughest challenges that could be faced by your characters?  We often refer to these sorts of things as the high stakes in our work—and for the most part, the higher the stakes, the greater the reader’s investment in the story and the character. In order to determine the highest stakes for our characters, we need to move far from what we know to that unknown territory of “What if?” We will imagine, we will suppose, we will research, we will learn something new, we will allow ourselves to stray from what we know in order to appall—ourselves and our readers.  And we will know we can do it because we’re writers—because we have the skills not just to write it, but to write it and make it alright, make it make sense, make it fit into the world. It is indeed by appalling that writers expand themselves and expand us so what we know becomes that much greater.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

34 comments:

  1. Goodness... what an enlightening post... Thank you for this. I think as writers we do tend to play it safe--to stick with what we know. But to write what we dread??? That gave me shivers too. I'm so glad I read this--this is going to fuel me to take that extra leap and face the fear!

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  2. hanks for sharing this, Emma. This topic is so profound for me as I ponder how anyone writes what they have not actually experienced. For example, I was in a hotel room in San Diego and was awakened at midnight by a man and woman physically fighting in the hotel room next door. I called the front desk and the police, who of course came right away. As I lay there after all was quiet again, my heart was pounding and I was shaking from the adrenaline I'd felt during the episode--I did beat on their door and yell at them to knock if off, then ran back and hid in my room. It turned out the fight was between a hooker and her pimp. Okay, so I now know how it feels to overhear such an episode, but I still have no idea how the woman who was involved actually felt, and I think it's simply amazing that an author can literally get into a skin they have never worn or experienced before. That is quite a unique trait that only authors have, I think. Another quality that sets authors apart. I am constantly trying to understand them! Karen G.

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    1. Karen: Facing what appalls us in life is important for us as people. Easier said than done, and in no way do I mean to suggest it's easy to face what appalls us -- indeed, sometimes what appalls us is dangerous to us or someone else. What I would suggest, however, is that if we're willing to even step towards that which appalls us, that's a form of bravery and expansion of ourselves--and I suppose I would add it's essential that we have a safety net around or beneath us whenever we're going on the bear hunt.

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  3. Fascinating post, Emma. Letting our characters take over and be themselves in the story, rather than who we writers want them to be, makes for some exciting writing and engaging reading.

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  4. This is exactly what I needed to read today,
    The Irish have a phrase--heart-scalded. As in, "I was so heart-scalded I never loved another!" It's so evocative, and I've found myself wondering when the work isn't going well, exactly what burn scar am I defending here? But I also ask myself, am I really willing to pay the price for writing what appalls me, because there is a price. What if the leap isn't worth the fall? I love the idea of gaining control and mastery and peace at the end of the process. Do you find it always ends that way or are there unresolvable stories?

    I've appreciated your thoughtful posts in the past without commenting, so thank you for this and many others.

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    1. Roseann: Thank you for your lovely comment. I love the notion of heart-scalded! Even though I do believe writers through the craft of writing well can have some mastery over that will appalls them and the reader, that doesn't necessarily mean that which appalls can be fixed, bettered, or wholly resolved. I think it means the writer can help us manage that which appalls and see it within its context, but it doesn't mean the appalling experience is any less appalling. Irving's prime example for himself was in CIDER HOUSE RULES, when he created a protagonist who would never in a million years agree with abortion given his own background, but who is given the tools and acquires the skills to perform an abortion and who inevitably had to perform an abortion. It's appalling to the protagonist, it was an appalling scene to write no matter how Irving knew it was coming, and it's an appalling scene to read--but Irving's skill and sensitivity as a writer helps the reader manage the sense of inevitability, helps the reader prepare for the scene, and helps us allow the scene to exist within the protagonist's life and within our own life, and then helps the reader to move on as the protagonist must do.

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  5. When we write what appalls or frightens up, we face the demon ourselves through our characters. I have often thought that writing is similar to peeking into someone's window. We watch our characters battle and face situations that we don't want to in real life. However, by writing about it, I feel like I do face it, and overcome it through my character. And, isn't that what we do for children--perhaps those who have to face appalling life styles and need hope that they, too can survive and overcome them.

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Judi.

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  6. I've never been one of the people who need the thrill of a bungy-jump or super-deluxe roller coaster, but after reading this I've got quill-seeking shivers! What an idea to appall oneself with our own written words! Thank you for this!

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    1. Oooh - quill-seeking shivers and thrill-seeking shivers all rolled into one! Nice!

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  7. Oh, this struck such a chord! Realize I've been going about this all wrong. The pleasant, the pleasing, is not what compels us to turn the page.

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    1. Lia, from the bit I've seen of your WIP, I don't think you've been going about things all wrong at all. Just don't be afraid to go all the way with your sword fights, dark hallways, and deeply complex characters. Go to some ugly places in order to find the beauty.

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  8. So interesting! I think that so much of this applies to life outside of writing as well. Not that we want to do what is appalling, but to stretch ourselves and to attempt things outside of our own comfort zone. I remember when I taught kindergarten I had a student who always followed every rule, never even pushed back a little bit. One day he pushed another child and realized that what he had done was wrong. While pulling him aside and talking with him about his consequence, I was quietly thrilled that he had taken a risk. He had gone out of his comfort zone and discovered that there are consequences for one's actions. As writers there are consequences for our actions, and for the actions that we create for our characters. This post has inspired me to try something out of my comfort zone. thank you for sharing!

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  9. Thanks Emma. I do often find myself thinking, what of the entire experience of the protagonist is going to be a manageable mouthful for a child reader. How do I present something potentially painful in a way that's fair and likely to lead to empathy rather than defensive callousness. Lots to think about. I'll have to give Cider House Rules a look. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  10. Thank you for unpacking John Irving's statements so beautifully, Emma. I have beent thinking about both since you posted them on FB on Sunday. I went to bed reflecting on how I do I take that leap and "appall" as a picture book writer? I woke this morning thinking, we have just been paying tribute to one who truly understood this and who stands as a model for us, Maurice Sendak.

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    1. I absolutely think there are ways to take some leaps and move out of comfort zones with characters in picture books as well as in longer fiction; it needs to be done within the scope and life experiences of the picture book audience, though. Sendak is the perfect example of a writer who has done this in his picture books. There are numerous picture books that contend with death, loss, being lost and any number of other elements that appall and can be appalling -- but all within the context of the young child and with reassurance so the child can be appalled but feel safe enough to go back out into the world, a little stronger for the experience.

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  11. Poking memories is hard.

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    1. Oh, indeed it is. And necessary. And often the safest space to poke memories in a manuscript.

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  12. Thanks for this, Em. Good sound advice, paired with great perspective as always!

    There is, and always will be, so much to write about, and yet each of us has only lived our one life. What of the lives we've never lived? Unless it's your life I am writing about, do I not know that life as well as do you? It's really about a sense of identification, or a desire to identify, that one might be well served to put forth.

    Then again, and contextually, I don't know shit. As for my writing, I leave that up to the readers to judge if my writing is commensurate!

    Peace and love,

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  13. It seems to me that the challenge as a writer is to pen something that you're familiar with, but in a fresh way. For me, getting inside the skin of a character as a writer, is a bit like being an actor it seems. You never know where your protagonist might take you...or appall you. Thanks for the great post, Emma.

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    1. Exactly right, Victoria! Thanks.

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  14. Emma, thanks for sharing this! I do think authors are gifted with an almost empathic ability at times to experience what they "don't know". Recently, I read about the untimely death of the "elephant whisperer" and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. Suddenly I could feel the footsteps of the herd marching across the savanna and the weight of their hearts crumpling like grass beneath their feet. I could hear the distant hum of a lullabye - Thula thul, thula baba, thula sana. Thula thul, thula baba, Africana. I don't know why these things came to me. I've never been an elephant! But for next 24 hours I was consumed by these feelings until my poem was fully written. For me, this is the gift of writing!

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    1. How beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing this peek into your process from inspiration to poem. Inspiring!

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  15. At first I thought, OK, my writing can be rather appalling :0 - No problemo. But then I realized the novel I'm fleshing out is far too safe. In my gut I could feel a lacuna in the path, but couldn't put my finger on it. That's exactly what's wrong with it! Wow. So now, the second issue/step for me is going beyond that & finding how to, as you said, "gain control, mastery, and peace over that which appalls"... to "embolden the reader." That might be tricky. I must say, this is why I still love Fairy Tales. In that space, the possibilities are limitless. Perhaps that is the answer for this particular book - to make the novel Fairy Tale-esque.
    Thank you so much, Emma. Wonderful blog!

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    1. You're so right - the traditional fairy tales never played it safe with the characters or with the emotions of the readers, but there was always some closure of some sort in the tales --even if it wasn't the neatly wrapped and bowed kind of closure. So, yes, I think your idea to go into that Fairy Tale landscape to sort out how you might handle your "lacuna" is a great idea. (And you've got me thinking of a lacuna as a rather ferocious, toothed beast now...)

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    2. Yes, it will be a "Novelairy Tale" then. Going to that landscape, may be the/an answer & an easier vehicle to allow one's mind to soar to new places in any story. Mainly because the archetypes & twists are so basic in our memory - so well known to us - coming up with others might be an easier road to access when tapping into the creative parts of ourselves.
      Not a big S. King fan, but I heard Stephen King say he always asks "what if". From this, he walked in a hallway & saw a fire hose on the wall & thought, "What if it came to life?" "What if his car was alive?"...etc. Voila! The lacuna as a being - holy smokes, Emma...now there's a story. Write that puppy!

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  16. "Write FROM what you know", yes! Great distinction, soooo different than "write what you know".

    Then allow our characters to take us on their journey, with a few stops along the way at appalling places!

    Thanks for the sound advice and the great post, Emma!

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  17. Gail Goetz5/22/2012

    Hey Emma -- This is a whole new take on writing for me. Since I read this blogpost, I sit down at my computer and think, "Now how can I give this young boy a scene that will appall him, that will appall the reader, and will appall ME! So much more fun than writing what I already know.
    Gail Goetz

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  18. Hi Emma ~ I love this notion of appalling. The term says it all. I'm on the third book of The Hunger Games series, and believe it's another example of a writer who embraced the concept. Thanks for sharing these 'appalling' ideas. ;~)

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  19. This post is just what I needed to read right now! Thank you for sharing Irving's insights as well as your own. And I found myself nodding emphatically during your discussion of Hemingway. I used to teach "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to high school students, and they hated it. It was hard for me to get them excited about it because I didn't care for it either. However, I would always tell them that reading Hemingway was a wonderful lesson in learning the difference between appreciating literature and loving literature. I'm glad to see someone else feels the same way!

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