My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mailbox: Let Writing Terrify You

What if I don't know what the character wants or I'm afraid to go there? Writing is inherently vulnerable. How do you manage that? Also how do your peeps deal with you writing about them.

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Try to keep it to under ten million questions.]  

Jennifer asks:

You've talked about the difference between writing vignettes and stories. Stories have characters that have wants and something preventing them from achieving those wants. But what if you don't even know what your character wants, and all you're doing is writing lovely little vignettes? Or what if you do know what your character wants, but you're afraid to go there? I'm finding it hard to write, even though I know no one is reading my writing. The act of writing is just so inherently vulnerable. How do you manage that? I think you're the perfect person to answer it, not only because you're the Yoda of writing but also because you blog about your unconventional family arrangement. Also, how do the people in your life feel about the fact that you're writing about them? When you write fiction, do you feel like you have to be careful not to fictionalize the people around you? Do the people around you see themselves in your stories regardless of whether or not that was your intention?

My reply:

The Yoda of writing, huh? I can live with that.  ("Every day write you must, yes!" "Waiting for inspiration. Too busy being. The Dark Sides of writing are these! Take care you must. Consume you they will!" "Write or write not. There is no try.")

Let me start with your last round of questions first.

How do the people in your life feel about the fact that you're writing about them? When you write fiction, do you feel like you have to be careful not to fictionalize the people around you? Do the people around you see themselves in your stories regardless of whether or not that was your intention?

When I am writing for the Grounded Parent blog, I use pseudonyms for my family, and while someone could conceivably get a little more detail over there than they could here when I'm writing about superheroes and being delightfully evasive about the threesome question, I still make sure my peeps are protected. But this question basically has several answers because there are several different kinds of people in my life.

  • My family literally gets the first round of edits on my G.P. articles. If they don't like what I've said, I make some changes until they are okay with it. Sometimes this leads to some discomforting discoveries. I don't think, for example, that everyone realized just how opposed I was to a home birth. Because, you know, I don't throw plates when I'm upset.
  • Most people in my life I just don't write about. At all. Their lives are their business and don't intersect with mine in a way that I couldn't write about myself without including them. In fact, most people fit into this category. I have tons of friends and people I would even call family who I can simply refer to in the most ambiguous terms. I don't know if they'd mind being written about or not because it just doesn't come up.
  • If I'm writing about someone who will obviously realize they're being written about (like someone from the past or a blood family member), I try to be as honest as I can. However, I've noticed really that people don't mind being written about. What they dislike is being written about in a way that will make them look bad to others. In that case I try to avoid Truman Capote levels of over-share, but I don't forget Anne Lamott's important words on the subject: "You own everything that has happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." Usually the person who should have behaved better is me, but I've got a few doozies.
  • When I am writing about most people who might be recognizable, and I am writing about them in a less than spectacular way, I change them. I change their name, their hair, where we met, sometimes even their gender. I still write about the truth of what happened but the details become different. I'm pretty sure they don't even notice as several events of spectacular assholery have gone unremarked upon by those I've written about.
  • When people are real assholes, I just let loose. Downside of pissing off a writer, brah.
As for fictionalizing existing people, I really can't warn you enough about how bad that idea is. This is worse than submitting to The New Yorker in Comic Sans. This is worse than letting the sushi chef give you something for free as long as you don't ask what it is before you eat it.  You really don't want to plug real people into your fiction. I mean you can take a mannerism of this person and a neurosis of that person and mix them with the personality of a third person, and then maybe change some cosmetic details and pour those aspects into an existing character to flesh them out. However, if people can recognize themselves in your fictional characters, you will probably get a lot of grief. Everything from meaningless conversations about how could you kill them off with a giant spork??? to really actually painful conversations about something you've noticed in their personality (because you're a writer and notice these things) that they themselves weren't aware of. 

It's not worth it.

Of course, if you see someone once, and they are a character you end up putting in your book, that's fine. They'll never know, and everything you filled in about them actually IS fictional. 

But what if you don't even know what your character wants, and all you're doing is writing lovely little vignettes? Or what if you do know what your character wants, but you're afraid to go there? I'm finding it hard to write, even though I know no one is reading my writing.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and voice my suspicion that it is the second question, not the first that is actually really on your mind, Jennifer.

The first question is kind of easy. Your character has to want something and your audience needs to know the stakes. Before we know what they want and the stakes, we don't care. Now lots of writers write vignettes, and some more experienced/famous writers even get them published sometimes, but usually they just make a writer more aware of who a character is or maybe get incorporated later when the writer does know what the character wants and what the stakes are.

The second question....that's the money shot. Because you--Jennifer--already know what my answer is going to be.

Don't you? 

If you were reading a book, and the characters in the book were all afraid of the Eastern Wood, and they were warned repeatedly not to go there, you would know, long before the story ended, where they were going to end up. Would you even feel satisfied if such a book ended with a calm day and no one going into the Eastern Wood? What if everyone in Hamlet just got cross with each other and yelled a little bit? What if Harry Potter was a good student who never did anything like explore Hogwarts at night? What if Gene never jounced the branch? 

Well, that's fine, but it's not a very interesting story.

Now you can write about characters just going about their day if you want. You can write safe and light and never go to the "Eastern Wood."  If that brings you pleasure, you can do that for the rest of your days. Really. So if taking the next step is something you really don't want to do, let writing be fun and enjoyable for you in the ways it already is. No pressure.

But I suspect what you are asking me for, Jennifer, isn't so much a question of what to do as the existential crisis arising from confirming what you already know. 

In order to grow as a writer, or as an artist, you will have to go there eventually. You must. Nobody wants to read about characters who do nothing or about an artist who plays it safe. And you may even be growing tired of it in your purely personal pennings. (Which was much more alliteration than I intended.) 

You have to go into the dark place as an artist because that dark place is you. Not fluffy, show-the-world, best-face you. Not the cocktail party you. The real you. The you who you're even afraid to face yourself, much less to show anyone else. This is the you who drives men mad. This The Never Ending Story's Mirrorgate you. This is the real reason most folks with talent and flare and interest in art never become artists. It's too fucking scary to face themselves instead of just being clever.

The dark place is where the real you lives, and until you walk in there with only a flashlight and the echoes of your footsteps, your art will always be light and fluffy. 

What is in there Yoda of writing?  "Only what you take with you. Your weapons clever linguistic flourishes....you will not need them."

The act of writing is just so inherently vulnerable. How do you manage that?

On my worst days, Jennifer, I don't. I write safe. I don't take chances. It's light, polite, and if I'm really "on" that day, it's kind of funny, but it risks nothing. And those articles and stories usually float away like a dandelion seed on a summer zephyr. They are cute, clever...forgettable. 

On my best days, I tap into something...a little tiny bit real. 

The act of writing is like pinning your own soul into a display case of a bug collection to be looked at (and looked over) by all. It is the most inherently vulnerable thing I know. I have had lovers who didn't know me as well as a careful reader would. 

But here's the thing, and there's no getting around it, when I tremble before I hit "Publish," when I walk around the room and say out loud to myself "You can't tell people that," when I'm terrified of what people will think of me or of my writing, that's when people tell me I've written something that really spoke to them. When I know I'm going to make people angry or that I'm exposing myself. When my characters face a choice that I don't actually know the answer to. When my heart pounds during the writing. That's when people crawl out of the woodwork to tell me my writing moves them.

So in the end, the platitude is right after all, despite being a cheap piece of bumper sticker wisdom quote that most writers only ever use as their Facebook Cover picture: "Try to write in a way that terrifies you a little."

Fear only leads to the dark side when you're a Jedi. In writing, it's how you know you're on the right track.

Or as the Yoda of writing might say: "Fear leads to honesty. Honesty leads to truth. Truth leads to artistic integrity."


  1. Vulnerability in writing is a terrifying thing. I believe the best writing is. OK, sometimes so is the bad stuff. But the worst is where there is no vulnerability at all. I have critique buddies I have to cajole, sweet talk, or just plain lambast out of hiding. And when they stumble into it----bloody beautiful! Heck, I do some hiding of my own that I don't always recognize. But sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and let your fingertips go. Writing is expression, an art. One can paint by numbers and fill in all the spaces with the correct tints and hues but it's soul-less and dull.

  2. I can relate to the "not wanting to go there", but sometimes I do and I don't know how. Maybe I'll submit a question at some point. Great post as usual.