Writing and Risk
Recently I met a woman I didn’t know for coffee. She had read my book and liked it, and wanted to meet me. I usually say no to this sort of encounter. I’m busy with my clients and my own writing, and prefer to keep my free time unobstructed. I’m no longer as social as I once was. And perhaps most important, meeting somebody I don’t know for coffee means taking a risk. We might have little to say to each other, the time might drag, and I could be angry at myself for having agreed to the meeting in the first place.
I am now, and have always been, risk adverse. Growing up in my family, engaging in anything–a debate, an activity, even a decision as simple as where to eat lunch–that didn’t turn out well was a mistake. And my father didn’t tolerate mistakes.
Within a few minutes of sitting down across from the woman I had agreed to meet, I knew she was warm, intelligent, and empathic. We spent a lovely hour together, and I certainly want to see her again.
Thinking about how this admittedly small risk led me to spend an extremely pleasant hour with a new person, I realized that, without being aware of it, I have learned to take risks in my writing as well.
I was once a writer who planned everything out in advance. I believed I needed to know just what I wanted to say before I ever put a word on the page. I constructed elaborate outlines, plotted stories from beginning to end. I even tried to conjure images and metaphors ahead of time.
The result was writing that was competent but predictable. Noting unexpected ever happened. Nothing to surprise the reader, to catch the reader’s breath and to send her off on an adventure.
Then one day—I have no idea long ago—I allowed myself to take an unplanned turn in my writing. I must have been feeling unusually pleased with my progress, or with the paragraph or sentence I had just written. So I stopped for a moment to let it sink in, and when I did, an association, an image, a bit of dialogue swam past me. And I caught it.
Now, this is the way I write. I begin with an idea (it could also be an image or a word) that feels rich, with no idea what direction my essay will ultimately take, or what conclusion it will reach. In general, the idea or image or snippet of dialogue is connected with a situation, and I capture that first.
Then, when I’ve reached the end of that particular moment, I pause, allowing myself to relax into the page. When I do this, it often feels like I’m going down in an elevator to a deeper place in my imagination. At some point, the elevator door opens deep inside me, and I wait for the next words to float through that open door and settle into my piece.
I urge all writers to try this: When you arrive at the end of something—a paragraph, a snippet of dialogue, a scene—pause for a moment, closing your eyes, and letting yourself sink deeper into that last moment. If you do this, a door will likely open for you to step through, and you will encounter an association, a plot twist, a metaphor or image, you had no idea you held within you.