Because the topic of my current WIP is less than pleasant and deals with some not very nice things happening to some pretty nice kids, well, it’s hard to write. I’ve always had a difficult time putting my characters into peril for a scene or two but this story feels like I am on a runaway train. I don’t even know anyone that has had these sorts of things happen to them so I don’t know where Frankie and his story comes from. I worry, as many writers do, that people (non-writers) will think the story is about my life. I worry, as many writers also do, that I won’t do the story justice.
To pump myself up I’ve been rereading some of my past writings about fear and emotional honesty in our writing. For me at least the two seem to go hand in hand. When I do it right – when I dismiss the editor on my shoulder and silence the critical voices in my head, when I shut my eyes, open my heart and let myself feel EVERYTHING, when I peel back the skin of the story and write with emotional honesty -writing scares the hell out of me. Everything I think and feel is right out there in the open for the world to see and that’s a terrifying and often paralyzing thought. But that’s what good writing does, splits you wide open and spills you into the world covered in nothing but guts and raw emotion.
I have to remind myself of this all the time, that my voice comes from honest emotion. But it’s hard. Excruciatingly hard. Because once the words are out there for the world to see people will make judgements about the person behind the words. They can’t help it and that fact intimidates a lot of writers (like me) to the point that much of what they write comes out sounding unbelievable.
So how does a writer do it? How do you move beyond playing it safe with your writing and move to new ground? Is it a matter of guts? Of instinct? Of a writing group with a really good cattle prod? Do you tie yourself in the chair and not let your spouse untie you until you’ve completed a certain number of pages? Lately it seems the more I try NOT to do it the more the fear and emotion come gushing forth. I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, and I realize it is because I saw Frankie and I knew what was going to happen to him, and knew there wasn’t a thing I could do to help him.
When I teach, I encourage my students to tap into their own emotional experiences and then channel that emotion into their stories. I try to do the same with my own work. My middle grade novel, Hugging the Rock, didn’t really come to life until I let myself feel the true depth of negative emotions I still carry about growing up without a father. The novel isn’t about that, it’s about a girl who stays with her father after a divorce and how the two of them build a new relationship together. But I allowed the pain of not having a father during those growing-up years to surface and then poured that emotion into the main character’s feelings about her mother during the divorce. I relived the longing for a father and the uncertainty of what having a father meant and used those emotions to fuel my character as she worked through her own new relationship with her father. The result? A character you can care about. A story that makes people cry because of the honest emotion. A book that people tell me rings true. Was it easy? No way. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
What can I tap into this time? The same pain, yes, but Frankie’s pain is different. His pain comes from a pain of only wanted to be loved and not understanding why the people who were supposed to love him hurt him instead. His pain comes from a feeling of helplessness that he doesn’t have the power to change his life. His pain comes from the belief that somehow he deserves all the bad things that are happening for him. When I see it listed out like that of course I know just what I have to tap into to tell the story but boy, I don’t want to go back to that dark place. It’s like standing outside the door to a cage and you know the monster is in the cage and you know you have to get into the cage and face the monster.
All creating, writing or music or art, all creative work demands courage from the creator. In order to write believable fiction we often have to be willing to bleed on paper. Go ahead and let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel every emotion – the pain, the anger, the longing, the laughter, the love. Let it bubble up until it boils over and then pour it into your writing. Rollo May, in his book Courage to Create, says, “If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.” Because of who you are and what you have experience, there are stories only you can tell. Feel the fear, dig deep and start writing.
Here I go – into the cage.