The Art of Living (and Writing) Dangerously

I was a frightened 13 year old registering for high school for the first time. My mother was with me. When it came time to have my picture taken for the Funnybook, the student directory, they asked me to describe myself in one word. I refused to give a word, but when I left, my mother told them to put the word “Clown” under my name.

I was mortified. I knew better than my mother that high school was a steady battle to stay cool. Kids at that age are so afraid of being rejected that they would rather be anonymous than be labeled the outsider. For as everyone knows, those who stand out in high school for the most part are treated like nails that stand up too high; they get hammered.

High school turned out to be a microcosm of real life. Inside, I was a geek, someone who never seemed to fit in with any crowd. On the outside, I learned that survival came with being just like everyone else. And I believe that I am not alone in that view of how one survives. I think the majority of the people in the world just want to fit in, even if it means losing who you are in the process.

But writing is not made for the meek, or the average person. Heaven knows that if you go onto Amazon or Goodreads and start browsing through writers and their works you will find many, many stories and books that are just like every one you’ve ever read. That’s because the author is afraid of doing something different, and much of that is because editors and readers have asked for more of the same. Secretly, each of them is longing for something different, but who will have the courage to try?

When I finished college and got my first real job as managing editor of a weekly Christian newspaper, I became acquainted with the proofreader for our press, a brilliant writer by the name of Arthur Milward. I had him read one of my stories. He told me that it was good, but that I had “distanced myself” from the story. At first, I didn’t realize what he was talking about. But as the years went along, and my writing got better, I understood. I was once again taking the safe route. I was talking about the story, rather than reliving it, and allowing my reader to relive it with me.

I still have a tendency to pick topics that are more philosophical and less personal, and I think that’s because subconsciously I am still afraid of rejection, just as I was in high school. And I suspect that I am not alone in that regard. One of the exercises I share with my writing students is to mentally investigate the “secret closet” we all have that includes items we don’t share with anyone else, and write a story based on what’s in there. It can be painful, and it is definitely scary. But time and time again I have seen a student writer’s best work come from out of that scary place. Why? Because in many situations, our most powerful emotions are associated with what’s in there. And if we use those emotions to drive our writing, it becomes a lot more powerful.

No one said that writing would always be a pleasant experience. In fact, it can be downright frightening. But that’s not necessary a bad thing. I encourage you–and I encourage myself–to move out of that complacent comfort zone and into an area that will challenge you–and your readers.

You might find your writing improving in ways you never expected.