One of my favorite authors happens to be in my online critique group. He also happens to be unpublished.
For years now, he has been writing novel after novel, only to abandon each one before all the words have made the long journey from his overactive imagination to the page.
Just a few months ago, my friend posted a new message on our critique group’s Yahoo page. Though he normally tends toward loquaciousness, this email was a record-breaker. His shortest ever.
I figured out my problem. I’ve been writing scared.
This newsflash was simultaneously surprising…and not surprising. Of all the writers I know, this friend strikes me as gutsy, bold, daring (in plot points, character sketches, and word choices). And yet, it rang true.
For one thing, if he’s writing scared, that would explain his lack of finished manuscripts.
For another thing, his words struck a huge chord in me. I dashed off a quick email in response, encouraging him to snap out of it forthwith, and then I opened my own manuscript and took a look.
What I found was alarming. Words so clean and non-threatening as to be yawn-inducing. And it was easy for me to go back in my mind and remember writing them. I remembered the stiffness in my shoulders. The whispering, nagging voices in the back of my mind. “That’s not believable.” “That analogy’s too out-there. Nobody will like it.” “Who do you think you are, anyway?”
Then I opened a document that I’d created late in November of 2009. Yes, one of those Novembers. National Novel Writing Month. I had promised my creative writing students that I would try it (for the second time) if they would. So I had to finish, right? Trouble was, I hadn’t started with a new idea. I was trying to finish my work-in-progress. Toward the middle of the month, I had exhausted the plot but was thousands of words short of NaNo’s 50,000.
Facing the prospect of failing my students, I elected to write what I would call “journal entries” from my various characters. My goal was simply to get into their heads so I could write them more convincingly. I knew I would/could never actually use much I was coming up with. Why? Well, because it would be messy. Rough. Not “real” writing.
But after reading my friend’s email, when I compared my writing from NaNoWriMo to the manuscript I’d been meticulously preparing for public consumption, it was clear: there was far more life in those mucky, not-officially-trying words. More honesty, more edge, more truth, more beauty.
I didn’t quite know what to do with that realization at the time. I sat there stuck between stunned and saddened. I guess the conclusion I came to, as I closed the documents and shut down my laptop, was that I could never hope to harness the loose, crazy writing into something an agent or a publisher would want. For on thing, multiple narrators are tricky. Only elite, magical writers can pull them off. Yada, yada, yada.
A month or so later, my family and I went on one of our seat-of-the-pants, marathon road trips (the NaNoWriMo version of family vacations, you could say). One of our stops was the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. The best act of the night (in my family’s humble opinion) was The Steeldrivers. They were skilled musicians, and energized the room to the point that my smile muscles were sore by the end of their four-song set.
I tried to pinpoint the source of their brilliance a couple of weeks later at my in-the-flesh critique group here in the Springs. I wound up on my feet, even going so far as to physically demonstrate the posture of the musicians and the singer (if you’ve ever seen me tell a story, this should not surprise you).
Here’s what I realized, even as I spoke: the lead singer in particular was leaned way out toward the shared microphone (so as not to be impaled by the fiddler’s bow), so far that one heel was lifted off the floor. As he sang, I held my breath at some points because I could guess where the notes were going, and I could already hear the exhilarating strain in the notes as he pushed toward the edge of his range. As he leaned and stretched and belted out the tune, I was sure his voice would crack at any moment. And I have never been more thrilled to be wrong.
My critique group friends are used to my effusiveness, thank goodness, so they were patient with me as I groped for the right words to match my goofy contortions. Finally, I said, “He was on the ledge the whole time. That’s it – he was on the ledge!”
And I realized then that that quality of on-the-ledge-ness was exactly what my online critique group friend was yearning for. It’s what I had achieved out of desperation in NaNo 2009. And it’s where I was woefully failing in my day-to-day attempts to please those whispering, party-pooping voices in my head.
That’s where the brilliance is, people. It’s at the ledge. It’s not seat-belted into the car at the gravel-covered “scenic overlook.” It’s not safely behind the informative plaque. It’s at the ledge, where your heart has no choice but to beat faster, because you’re crazy and have no business being there.
Who do you think you are?
Only supernaturally talented writers can attempt that kind of thing.
It’s too risky – you ought to be where the footing is safe and sure, not out there where you just might fall (read: never, ever, ever be published).
You know what? If I can’t write a book that I really and truly love, I don’t want it published. I don’t want people reading the cautious, safe, yawn-inducing stuff that I produce when I’m seat-belted, secure, peering through the windshield of my safely parked car.
I realize it’s not safe out here on the ledge. But that’s where you’ll find me from now on. Published? Maybe. Alive? Oh, yes. And if I fall, I’ll fall laughing.
About the Writer: Mandy Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and woefully underpaid home schooling mom. She's sold several nonfiction articles and stories, and placed in a couple of short fiction contests, but she has yet to break into book-length fiction. Her first novel is safely and appropriately in a deep, dark drawer. Her second is in its final rewrite, and will be sent out to agents in 2011. No, really.