Last Thursday, a new term began at the community college where I teach writing. A few hours before my class, I got the news of the mass killing at Umpqua CC in Roseburg, Oregon–a mere hour’s drive from where I live. The Writing Instructor faced his class before being gunned down with about eight of his students. Facing my own writing class that evening, I was pretty shaken, but thankful to be safe. In light of this latest tragedy, I started thinking about how we all take risks–in life as well as in our writing.
Writing Tip for Today: Why should writers take risks with their writing?
A good reason to take risks with our writing lies in the emotional connections we weave when we write from our hearts instead of only with our heads. Especially in fiction, emotions are what make our readers stick to our stories well past their bedtimes. If we can get readers to feel deeply, we can keep them devouring our words.A character who strolls through scenes as a two-dimensional robot might give us important information, dialogue and even action. But it’s only when we tap into our readers’ deepest emotions–the cravings for love, belonging, fears and phobias, that we truly capture our readers. Many times, I must rewrite a scene several times to get at the heart of the matter. At first I block out the scene’s purpose, setting, etc. As I revise, I look for character motivations, asking myself why the character is doing/saying things. The more internal questions asks, the deeper into the emotions you (and the character and readers) must go. At the bottom of the scene’s mine shaft, I usually discover the gut-wrenching reason for my character’s predicament.
Dare to Speak
Another obvious reason to take risks in writing is to speak up when silence is the norm or even mandated. Without Elie Weisel writing about the Holocaust, we might not know what it was really like. Without Steinbeck’s fictional treatment of the Joad family, the story of many in the Great Depression might have not been appreciated. Fiction can often be the best vehicle for illuminating social problems–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the meat-packing industry. Dickens often wrote about the perils of child labor in 19th century London. By fictionalizing tragedies or social ills, writers can bring attention to problems without naming (real) names.
While there are probably many other reasons to write risky, speaking the truth is an important resource for society. But have you thought about what risks you take each time you sit down at the keyboard? Whether you write about topics that make us uncomfortable, expose a social or cultural ill or simply dare to write what everyone thinks but few will utter aloud, honesty and integrity is paramount to eliciting reader emotions. If you dare to write in a way that does not hide behind cliche, stereotype or overwrought ideas, readers generally pick up on it. Write with something to say and say it from the true-est place you can find within yourself. Your readers will thank you–and want to buy your next book.