My son Matt was involved in an auto accident in 2002 that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. Immediately after his accident, his rehab doctor told us that the brain is a black box, and when there’s an injury, there’s no telling what the results will be. He’s doing better now, but at one time we struggled with a total loss of inhibition on Matt’s part. We would be walking in a shopping mall and he would say out loud, “Look how ugly that guy is.” You get the idea.
Thinking, but not necessarily speaking, is something we learn as we grow older. That comes to the point as teenagers, and then adults, where we are so afraid of offending or being embarrassed, that most of what we feel is kept inside. For getting along in society, that’s probably a good thing. For a writer, perhaps not so good.
When I was in hospital public relations back in the 80s, I had an older colleague pull me aside and tell me that I would not make it in administration because “I wore my heart on the outside of my sleeve.” I had a hard time not expressing my feelings, in other words. Well, he was right, and I never made it into administration (thank goodness!). I have since learned to think twice before speaking once, but writing is another issue. Being open and honest in writing often involves speaking candidly about stuff that you mother told you was never spoken about in public.
“The best work that anybody ever writes,” said Arthur Miller, “is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.” In his book, The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes says: “Most adults enjoy the privilege of keeping their private lives private. Writers forego that privilege. One author I know compared writing novels to dancing naked on a table.”
In an in-class writing experiment, I recently encouraged my writing students to delve into that dark part of their psyche, to explore and explain the “skeletons in their closet.” A few took me up on the challenge, and did relatively well. Most had a hard time with it. And yet, on their final exam, many still remarked that writing about things that frightened you or were very intimate improved their writing. Enough said.
Readers read books that allow them into intimate parts of another person’s life. Even adventure stories, and fantasy and science fiction stories that have little semblance to reality need that spark of intimacy for the reader to care and identify with the main character. And that all starts when a writer is willing to open up his or her own vulnerabilities and share it with the world.
Difficult? Yes. But if it wasn’t, then everyone would be a writer. Right?