Monday, May 16, 2011

Column: Singeing Your Eye Whiskers by Deb Courtney

While playing poker at my house the other night, a friend said, "Uh, I think your cat may have burned itself…" We all turned to look where she indicated. In fact, the cat was standing very close to a grouping of candles, and as we all watched, she leaned over to examine a flame. Quickly she jumped back shaking her face. I went and picked her up and sure enough, she had damaged the whiskers over her right eye. Which means she will walk a little funny and bump into things for a few days.

My cat is a gorgeous long-haired mix of American Ragdoll and Bob-tail. She is like a tiny, delicate, befurred Siamese, with a loud chirrup of a voice and a tail that is always curled around her (due to the bobtail mutation). She is adorable. She is not, however, smart, and this whisker singeing was not her first. In some weird way she is determined to ‘get’ something about flames and keeps revisiting them even though they clearly cause her some damage and a little pain. I have to keep the wood burning fireplace insert doors closed as she gets super close and I’m afraid she’ll actually walk in.

Yes, that not smart.

But her persistence got me to thinking. Both in life and in writing fiction, I think we tend to stick with the familiar, the comfortable. We don’t like stepping outside our habits, climbing out of our ruts. In my current work in progress, I found myself placing limits on where I would take my character – oh, I can’t write THAT, I would tell myself. That is too vulgar, or too over the top, or would offend some people. And for a while I wrote my character very carefully so as to stay within some boundary that makes me feel safe. After all, offending people, writing things about a character that people might confuse with me, writing something too vulgar (and yes, there is a TOO vulgar for me, I do have some limits) – well, it SCARES me.

Yes, scares me.

What if something is so vulgar it puts off potential readers? What if someone surmises I am my character and therefore decides not to like ME any more? What if, what if, what if. Yet I kept coming up with scenes that seemed so right, then censoring myself. Not writing them. Just like my cat, back to the flame again and again.

But here’s what I have finally decided: We can’t be afraid to singe our eye whiskers. We just can’t. There’s a life lesson in here, certainly, but from a writing perspective, if we never go to the places where we singe our whiskers, if we only write what is safe and comfortable and what we think will not offend, well, we aren’t writing our true selves. And I think (and someone correct me if I am wrong) that writing that is unloosed, and not self-censored, and which goes exactly where it needs to go, is almost always going to be better and get more positive responses from readers than that which is restrained and safe.

By this I don’t mean that you need to work hard to offend, or use curse words, or gratuitously use sex. I mean, write the book that is there to be written, there inside your brain, and don’t let fear keep you from writing exactly that book. Even if it’s scary to step out of your comfort zones. Even if you think you might be judged. Even if you think you might singe your eye whiskers.

The worst that will happen is that you might walk a bit wobbly for a while, bump into things for a bit.

And I am pretty sure that’s okay.

Singe your eye whiskers, writer-people. Do it.

Deb Courtney has a degree in fiction from the University of South Florida, has published several short stories, and has written freelance for such publications as The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Business Journal. She is a frequent speaker at Pikes Peak Writers events.

She lives in the foothills in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she has a winter view of Pikes Peak (which is to say she can see it only when all the leaves are off the trees). She shares her home with a driving-age teen, two cross-eyed slightly brain-damaged felines, and likely has squirrels in her attic. And that's not a euphemism.

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