Monday, June 30, 2014

The Courage to Write Fiction

A group called A Better Brighter World asked me a question:
The word courage appears more than 20 times in Dear Writer Revisited and is noted as the first (and at one point the only) essential for a writer. What can you recommend as the best ways for a writer to develop this courage?


Here is my riff on the matter. I don’t really have an answer to the question.

You write fiction by writing fiction. You develop the courage to do this by developing the courage to do it.

As you know, it is no small thing to decide to dedicate long periods of time to writing stories. The decision disrupts not only your own life, but also the lives of your family, friends, colleagues and so on. As soon as you decide to withdraw to the world of your imagination in order to construct small or large other worlds, you institute a change in all your relationships. You announce yourself as being ‘different’ from what you used to be, what others thought you were. And you are announcing that you not only have a new attitude to complexities of life, but that you intend to display that attitude to the world at large. So your use of time will be different, and your position vis-à-vis the family etc will have changed. You haven’t just taken up a new activity, you have sort of become a new person. 

In all this YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.

The impulse to write fiction comes from within yourself, and it’s going to affect everything you do. Perhaps you have been alert to detail and language etc for a long time, but now you are going to put all that together, create narratives, and take ownership of your creations.

You realise of course that the people around you might be afraid you will expose not only yourself, but them. So now they might start to behave differently. You have a lot of adjusting to do. They don’t necessarily have to adjust, but you do. They might be thrilled and excited and helpful. They might not. As I said, they might be a bit frightened of you. You are claiming to be a magician with words, for one thing. And I suppose magicians are scary. And of course you are daring (at last I am coming close to the word ‘courage’) to re-arrange your usual timetable. You have to give plenty of time to your writing. Regularly. Just about every day.

And all this is only the beginning. You dare to step out and expose your skills and ideas to the world at large, and now you have to work out how to get the world to take notice. Who is going to be your first reader? Well, you are. So that clears that up. You need to be critical but kind here. And when you are satisfied that the work is as good as you can get it, you have the question of what to do next. Do you have a teacher? Do you have a writing group or class? How useful are they? (It’s often best not to show the work to family – doing that can sometimes be damaging to you, the work, the family.) Do you get it professionally assessed? Or do you just send it off to a competition? Maybe you boldly post on your blog. All these courses of action require courage.

Now I have spent some time here exploring the need for courage, while your question asked about how one develops courage.

When you were learning to ride a bike, drive a car – how did you get the guts to do it?
Was it by facing the fear, imagining the act, trying it out, failing, trying again, practising – and getting there?

Getting the courage to write stories is really not so very difference, although in this case there might not be a close group of people cheering you on. In this case there are almost certain to be rejections – rather like failing your attempts to get your driver’s licence, actually. Only here, in the matter of writing fiction, the rules are never as clear as the rules of the road. There is so much freedom in writing.

Ah, freedom. That’s often the problem isn’t it? You come to a junction of seven roads. There are no signposts. You have to go somewhere – the decision is yours.

(I wanted to finish there, but I do need to add a postscript. You will hear people being scathing about the idea that writing takes courage. Courage, they say, is what fighter pilots have, it’s what martyrs have etc etc. No use arguing with them. They’re just wrong. Dictionary definitions are not the be-all and end-all, but in this case any dictionary will tell you that having courage means having the ability to face doing something that frightens you. The quality of the fear is irrelevant. And in fact, the obstacles in the way of a new fiction writer are pretty scary. The possibility of losing your friends, job, family - and having very little to show for it in the end – erk – that’s scary. Publishing stories that critics say are not worth reading – that’s scary.

As it happens, just yesterday, I saw an example of the fear and timidity that can grip a fledgling writer. I was at a party, and a man gleefully read to the group a satirical poem he had just written – about politics. It was in the form of a prayer. It was fun. Now it so happens that I know a publisher who is collecting work for a book of what she calls ‘secular prayers’. I reckoned that this piece the man read out would be a possibility for the book. I told him. And all his pride and bravado suddenly shrank. One moment he was the bold fighter pilot and the next he was a frightened mouse running for the hole in the skirting board – do forgive these silly metaphors – they seemed OK at the time. Later a friend explained to me that the man, who is a local professional, would not be able to publish such a thing because it would be at odds with his professional profile. I think that story goes some way to demonstrating the kind of courage I am discussing. The man was so pleased to make the work public among his friends, but it must go no further, for it could upset his world. I expect his perspective on all this would be different from mine. C’est la vie.)

I decided to put the ending in again – I can, you see – because I’m making the decisions. Here it is: Ah, freedom. That’s often the problem isn’t it? You come to a junction of seven roads. There are no signposts. You have to go somewhere – the decision is yours.

NOTE: Dear Writer Revisited is published by Spineless Wonders

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