Fear, Courage, and What Makes Your Writing Stand Out

My workshop at the Breathe Writers Conference was on rewriting and revision. I had so much I wanted to cover and not enough time to do it, thus I was forced to truncate my closing remarks. I’m sharing them here in full.

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Sometimes as we are revising, we run across something in our own writing that makes us uncomfortable. A bit of truth that slipped out when we weren’t watching. Maybe we let a character say something shockingly true. We read it later and are stunned that it came from within our minds and hearts. We think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, shouldn’t let my character say it.”

In the novel I’ve been working on this year, the overarching theme is the really the sovereignty of God—that everything that happens, including the tragic and awful, happens within His will and is part of His plan for our lives for a reason. That theme is played out in the stories of three women. Two of these storylines focus heavily on race, one during the Civil War, another during the Civil Rights era. In writing about the way white people in this country have viewed and treated black people over the decades, in writing about prejudice and lynching and rioting, and in writing about interracial relationships and marriage, I have had plenty of opportunities to censor myself. There have been many times I’ve thought, “People think this way, people say things like this—but will readers think that’s me? Will they think I think that way?” No one wants to be seen as racist.

And on the other hand, there was a powerful pull to remain politically correct, to treat black characters only as victims. Besides the fact that this is an incredibly demeaning label to put on an entire race, when you look at individual lives, not everyone in this world is a victim. (And victims often make the most uninteresting characters in fiction.) One of the climactic scenes is of the Detroit Riots of 1967. As a writer I could not escape from the fact that that scene included young black men destroying property, stealing, swearing, and even shooting at firemen who were trying to keep the neighborhood those same young men lived in from burning down. But a privileged white woman writing about poor, unemployed black men committing crimes? Is that allowed? Or can only African Americans comment on such an event? I was in high school and college during the 1990s, so I have to fight against near-constant “political correctness” indoctrination rearing its head, because all the PC movement ever did was bury issues under a veneer of civility where they continued to fester, ready to explode because they are never resolved.

In fact, in order say anything worth saying about the reality and experience of racism in the North, I had to avoid both extremes of piling on the white guilt and portraying black characters as victims. That’s been done to death. And in between those two extremes is where we find truth—and truth is never without tension. There’s a lot of fear in writing about explosive topics like race, war, the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of the union of husband and wife. And yet those explosive topics are important. And if we censor ourselves in the public square or the intellectual square, we allow others to set the trajectory of our culture.

In revision, sometimes the things that you feel most strongly that you should delete are the things you should keep. When you feel you should censor yourself because of what a reader (often a very specific one, like your mother or spouse or a friend) might think of you, that’s when you should stop, take a deep breath, and move on. Leave that bit in there. That’s what makes your writing interesting, original, individual, and worth keeping. Deep down, we know that the things that frighten us a little or surprise us—those are the things that actually are saying something. The moments we allow ourselves to really say what we mean—those are the things that really need to be said.

Betsy Lerner, in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees, said it this way:

“If you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing. . . . Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it. That they find it exquisite or revolting…‘Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’ Throw off the shackles of approval. . . . if your book causes a commotion, even the negative kind, you will have made a platform for yourself, something very few writers ever attain. . . . You cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes through half measures.”

Yes, if you run across a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that you realize just doesn’t do anything, chop it out of there! It’s dead weight! But if you feel the pull to remove something because it’s uncomfortable or you fear the criticism of others, and yet that part of your work does further your story and does give your reader deeper insight into a character—or into the human condition—be brave. Keep it. Leave it in. That’s the thing that readers will remember. That’s the thing that will make readers sit up straight and listen—because you are someone with something important to say.

Don’t edit out of fear. Don’t edit to protect yourself. Edit to make that shocking truth, that encapsulation of reality hit home even harder. Edit to make that meaning crystal clear.

Because things that need to be said are often those things we wish to hide–about ourselves, about others, about our glorious, messed-up world.

One thought on “Fear, Courage, and What Makes Your Writing Stand Out

  1. Hi Erin,

    Great post! I had to choose between your workshop and another at Breathe…so I’m glad I got to “hear” at least a little of what you presented. Great thoughts and I’m sure I’ll remember them as I do my own editing in the future.

    ~Robyn Mulder

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