Take the Safety Off

Well, kiddo, you’re not going to die happy if you don’t at least take a run at it. An early morning thought. I’d been avoiding writing a novel version of the short story “In the Land of Two-Legged Women,” which had been critiqued in Master Class taught by Margaret Atwood at the 92nd St Y in New York. Atwood said she thought it could be a novel and movie. My god! Atwood said that? Time to get to work. Yeah, right.
Many years later I woke up with the get-on-with-it kiddo thought. The story takes place in the city state of Ramprend and it is not a good place for females. Girls’ legs are sawn off at the onset of puberty. I did not want to go into that place again. I survived it for a short story but a novel length of time in Ramprend was downright scary. I feared what happened in Ramprend wouldn’t stay in Ramprend and I would become completely freaky. Weird, but it was there, producing years of avoidance.

There was also something else going on. Writing about something and actually doing it are obviously not the same. However, there are actions with which a writer might not want to be associated.We all live with inner critics. Mine would scream, “How could you imagine such things? What will people think of you? All kinds of assumptions would be made about the writer. All kinds of actions might be tried against the work and its writer. Social media as we know it didn’t exist when I was going through this. If it had, I would not have been surprised at death threats, given the pathetic creeps who prowl the internet.

Thinking about being on my death bed feeling like a damned coward drove me to my Mac. I found I could enter Ramprend everyday, then step back into my life. I got through it. I wrote the scary thing. After a long search Inanna Publications accepted it. It is forthcoming this Spring.

I’ve made my peace, more or less, with being able to write what I did. Actually, I’ve gone further, darker, and am planning on continuing to do so. I’m glad I got off the coward path, even though I scare myself from time to time, as I did with “Lock and Load,” a short story in which a woman murders a sexual harasser who’s been making her life and those of three colleagues absolutely miserable. There’s the possibility she’ll get away with it.

Not too long after writing it a sentence popped into my head, “I’ve taken the safety off my voice.” In the subterranean depths of my soul I’d known for years I could write dark, very dark. I avoided acknowledging that. There is the novel with its darkness, but in some weird fashion I must have been treating it differently because it happens in a made-up world. My attitude about my world was there is so much negativity, why add to the darkness people can fall into? Thus, I tried to write honestly while remaining a “good” person.

When I think about my writing, I invariably think about other writers. I’ve known people who write very well and have urges to do so, yet they rarely write—or have given it up entirely. One reason for avoidance discussed by psychotherapists, writers, visual artists is a fear of creating. They who want to write can feel they should not presume to think they could create something no one else could. They’re certainly not gods who can bring forth what’s never before been made manifest.

“Creativity is neither the product of neurosis nor simple talent, but an intense courageous encounter with the Gods.” Rollo May. Read his “The Courage to Create.”

Another reason for writing avoidance, related to the above, can be expressed as, “Oh, my god! What terrible, horrible, awful, embarrassing stuff might come tumbling out if I don’t watch my mouth.” There are many things we can want to keep out of sight, even our own sight. Mean-spirited acts. Desires for the not-usual. Anger—a particular bugaboo for women. Fear. Vulnerability—a bugaboo for men. It takes courage to follow Virginia Woolf’s declaration. “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” That includes the people you create.

Telling the truth about yourself does not mean you have to share all of it with the world. But to write honestly, interestingly you need to acknowledge you have complexities, including thoughts, feelings, behaviors you wish weren’t part of you. They’ve been kept hidden because if acknowledged, known, they’d be viewed as not nice or yucky or weak or pathetic or downright abominable to “good” people. However, consider this. Nice, good people tend to produce boring writing. Boring because it isn’t lifelike, it doesn’t ring true. I suggest you heed Margaret Atwood. “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by another person, and not even by yourself at some later date.”

With a gun, the safety is on or it is off. With the writing voice the safety can be kind of off. Writers can push themselves, but not enough to gain the richness their work could have with the voice safety off. Richness includes not-nice stuff. Life isn’t unending days of joy and laughter. And neither are good stories. Or essays or poems. Robert Ready, writing professor (Drew University, New Jersey), tells students to make some noise in their writing. He sent the following to this writer, “As a story teller, thou shalt believe in rage, lust, treachery, self-deception, all the ways people have of binding themselves and others on the wheel of fire Lear rages on.”
Take the safety off. Make some noise. Remember—no one is going to read it, not even you.

Originally posted on “The Artist Unleashed” blog on 7/9/16 under another name.