“But I will tell the night
And whisper “Lose your sight”
But I can’t move the mountains for you.”
-Mumford & Sons, “Timshel”
For a very long time, I’ve been a lonely writer. I have worked in isolation, making what I’ve wanted to make, editing my own work, reaching for the bookshelf and finding whatever I could on my own. In some ways, this has been a comfortable way to write, and it’s given me a rare opportunity to create things that are, down to every detail, the product of my own mind.
With this comes a loneliness that’s impossible to ignore, and a tendency to spiral ever inward on my own ideas. Or to spend years making the same mistake over and over again.
Recently, however, I’ve landed in a place where I’m surrounded by other people who like to put words on paper, people who are willing to read what I have. It’s been a downright giddy experience, to lean out of my cubicle and find myself talking to someone who also spins tales. And earlier this week, one of these fellow word geeks offered some feedback that brought me to a halt, and then sent me into the wilderness, seeking some dark piece of my own soul I’d hidden, and hidden well.
“You built up this scene, and then you just let the pressure off too soon. It needs to build more, it needs to be a bigger moment.”
It wasn’t just good advice, it was a thing that had been gnawing at me for a while, and something I’d done many times. A lot of moments in my writing that I’d meant to be really big had, in fact, fallen flat when I finally got them on the page.
I spent the rest of the day asking myself why.
I could see in the scene pointed out to me that it didn’t have all the tension it should because I hadn’t allowed my character a moment of uncertainty within it. She follows a beastie down into its lair, she creates a plan, and then she executes it, both figuratively and literally. The moment feels choreographed. Safe. There is no question, from beginning to end, that she’s going to deal with things just fine.
Considering the amount of time I’d spent building up to the confrontation, it made no sense. And yet, I had never changed the way it played out.
Why couldn’t I let my character stumble, struggle, spend even a few seconds thinking that she might fail, might fall?
Was I trying to spare the character? Was I trying to spare the reader?
No, I decided, none of the above. I was sparing myself.
I didn’t want to drop my character into that kind of uncertainty, because within my writing I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to have a sense of control that I couldn’t exert in my own life. I desperately wanted that feeling of choreography, of planned moves, of knowing that everything is going to turn out just fine, all under control.
But that’s not what writing is for.
For several years, my life felt under attack from outside forces. I seemed to constantly be standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff, stepping backwards more and more as the ground in front of me vanished.
I miscarried my first pregnancy, and subsequently lost faith in the religious beliefs that had guided me all my life. Short behind came the birth of Little Miss, a blessing, but also a high-needs insomniac. Then my husband’s second deployment, during which I left the place that felt like home and the support network I’d built there, to return to the place I’d once called home and the support network that needed patching. Just when I thought I’d found my place, my grandmother, the beloved matriarch of my family, passed away. Then at last, when my husband returned home, he was not the same as when he’d left, and we spent the next few years struggling to get a diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder. All the while, rejection letters from agents rolled in.
That’s a hell of a list, and I spent a lot of time feeling a bit like the universe’s favorite punching bag.
So I came to my notebook, my pen in hand, and I made the lives of my characters a little bit cleaner. Sure, there were baddies to take down and moments of peril, but never too much of a mess. I didn’t feel like walking up to the cliff and dangling my feet over. I just wanted to take a peak, and then go safely back home, where I could shut the door, bake some bread, play nice music, and rest assured that there were no monsters under the bed.
My life was a whirlwind, a place of all questions and no answers, and I couldn’t let that mess creep over in my writing. I had to cling to at least the illusion that somewhere a world existed where plans could unfold carefully, one step at a time, where even the occasional deviation didn’t mean disaster, just detour.
I made my writing an escape, a little bubble of denial. And in doing so, I crippled the tension in my own narrative, and set back the very dream to which I sacrificed sleep and sanity and normalcy. Some of the things that happened during the years of chaos were nobody’s fault. There were so many tragedies and shiftings and falls that came on my household organically, a simple consequence of the unpredictable nature of life. But there is one mistake that I made, which I still feel today.
I didn’t write the truth. I wrote what made me feel safe.
When Little Miss and Little Dude were tucked into bed, and The Hubs was fully engrossed in a TV show, I pulled out my raggedy notebook and my pen. I read myself into the offending scene, and at the critical moment where I’d betrayed the narrative, I began re-writing. I would start again, rebuild from the ground up.
I went into it, expecting that it would be a difficult task. After all, it had taken me years to come to terms with my own failing. Surely the writing itself would be hard.
It wasn’t. I actually found it thrilling to throw my character off her game a little. I watched her confront uncertainty, stumble, feel her feet go over the edge of the cliff, and then I watched her rise up and come back from it. I admired her more than ever. I hadn’t cleared the way, and yet she’d survived. And the narrative was all the stronger for the doubts I’d thrown in.
I’ve always nodded sagely at the metaphors writers use when they talk about their craft. “It’s like dancing on the rooftop naked.” “It’s like fighting your own demons in public.” “It’s like throwing your dirty laundry onstage for everyone to see.” I always interpreted these quirky images as a way of saying that writers must be willing to tell their personal stories, put down on the page their true experiences. And perhaps that’s part of it.
But so often the very craft of writing is a game of overcoming mental barriers. We must learn to have our precious stories critiqued, and then cut and change with a smile. We must be willing to acknowledge that our work ethic sucks, and it’s time to set ourselves a schedule and just slog our way through a daily word count. We must learn to roll with rejection letters, though they sting like hell, and then some.
This week I found that we must walk through the hells of life, and still come to the page willing to write what is real, no matter how much it frightens us, no matter how much it hurts. It is important, so very important, that sometimes our characters fall, and even we the writers think that maybe, this time, they won’t get back up. So that if they do scramble back to their feet, our relief and our admiration will be well earned.
And if they don’t, we will be reminded that when the worst happens, the story goes on.