Wednesday, February 2, 2011

According to a widely accepted authority on the subject, fear is a major hurdle for writers. I tend to agree. I have frequently described some of my favorite writers as brave, so it stands to reason we must have something to fear when we sit down to write, however irrational it might seem when we're not at the keyboard. (I think most writers worth their fingertips have experienced moments of varying lengths during which that fear is gone completely. For myself, I know these times to be when I've written my fastest, best, and most honest work.)

What am I talking about exactly? What do writers have to fear when they're writing? I think many writers might not see these things as fears, really. They might see them as difficulties, constraints, grammatical hangups. Who the heck knows. But maybe the best way to explain what I mean by fear is a list. A list like this one:

Things I fear when I write
  • Slipping into "genre" fiction, and then having no idea what to do once I'm there
  • Using "look" too much, not to mention "shrug," "glance," and "smile"
  • Too much dialogue and not enough narration, so I seem lazy and my readers are confused
  • Too much narration and not enough dialogue, so I seem self-indulgent and my readers are bored
  • Placing my protagonist in a situation with which I am not intimately familiar
  • Placing my protagonist in a situation that will be hard to navigate
  • Creating a scene that doesn't launch the story forward, losing readers to boredom
  • Creating a scene that is so plot-focused that I end up with under-developed characters and barely attended settings

I could probably go on and on, but here's the funny part: All of those fears appear from the moment I start to write. We're talking first-draft stuff, here--stuff no one, and I mean no one, will read. Yet I am reticent to even put the words into a document because . . . well, because of fear. How irrational is that! Very irrational is how.

Let me give you an example of fearful writing. Brooklyn, Burning, my second novel, centers on an actual event that took place in Greenpoint in May of 2006. A warehouse burned for days, and investigators immediately suspected arson. If I was going to have my protagonist involved somehow, the police would have to get involved. Two fears: a real event about which I knew very little (the fire and arson itself), and a character about to get into a situation that might be hard to navigate, for the character and for myself (a run-in with the police that wasn't going to end with a warning, let's say).

I'd already written quite a bit in my Greenpoint story, but I hadn't committed to the central place the fire would play. It took me weeks to accept that this was the story I wanted and needed to write. It took me weeks and months more to actually do the work of writing it. At first it was slogging through mud in heavy boots, until I said, "Aw, screw it," and wrote a scene with detectives in it. Guess what: Dick Wolf didn't come smashing into my dining room, shouting, "You have no idea what you're doing!"

No matter what fears a new scene, paragraph, sentence, or even word might present, I save myself from nothing by backing away from it. If I barrel through and find a difficult spot--a spot I hadn't expected or had expected thoroughly and had known would give me trouble--that's fine. I'll barrel through that too. And if upon re-reading I decide, yeah, that scene needs more stage direction, I can put it in. I can rewrite the scene.

I can do whatever the hell I want, is the upshot, because it's my goddamn story anyway.