Err on the Side of Audacity

secretlifeofbeesindexToday I was perusing Sue Monk Kidd’s website (and discovered that The Secret Life of Bees is being made into a movie and will be out in October), and came across this little tidbit she posted in a list of advice she’d give to writers. Here was number seven:

“Err on the side of audacity.

One day it occurred to me that most writers, myself included, erred on the side of being too careful in their writing. I made a pact with myself that I would quit playing it safe when what the story really wanted… what my heart really wanted, was to take a big chance. The best writing requires some daring– a little literary skydiving. Look at your idea and ask yourself: how can I make this larger? The novelist E. M. Forster once said that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments. After I finish each chapter, I read it with an eye toward figuring out where I’ve played it safe, where I backed off, where the small astonishment was lost.”

It rings true for me. As a writer, it’s much easier to play it safe. It’s something I’ve definitely struggled with in my manuscript, especially on the first round. I mean, I thought it was pretty out there, scary, revealing. But then some of my readers pointed out how I avoided the darkness, avoided really talking about albinism, skimmed other issues, and that it would be better to really dig in. In rereading and rewriting, I realized how much I had sugarcoated or glossed over. It’s hard not to sometimes, out of habit. Not that it’s a writing habit, but a life habit – making things sound somehow easier to swallow than they are, filling in details that aren’t always really there, sidestepping the really deep territory. I mean, the deeper and darker territories are hard to go into. And yet I also think in some ways, they’re the richest.

As a reader, I hate it when I feel a story doesn’t go to its own depths. I mean, in that case, really, why tell the story? It’s frustrating as a reader, somehow empty and not quite totally satisfying, and if I’m going to spend my time reading a book, I want it to go to the depths, and not just hover on the surface. Some examples come to mind. One was this book, I think it was called Find Me or Finding Me, by Rosie O’Donnell. A friend loaned it to me years ago. I knew just about nothing about the woman, as I often feel like I grew up in a virtual pop culture vacuum, having almost zero exposure to those sorts of things.

So I just read it like any other memoir or novel, and in it she talks about basically meeting someone with multiple personalities. Which is something that completely fascinates me to no end (I like the unusual, and that’s like the cream of the abnormal psychology crop), but every time she wrote about this woman (whose name I can’t remember) or her reactions to it, she’d write something like (and I’m completely paraphrasing, this was probably four years ago now), “Well this is getting pretty weird so let me tell you about something else,” and every time she wrote something of that nature, I felt ripped off. Like no, give me the real experience. Stop distracting me (or yourself) by constantly changing the subject, and let’s dig into it. It was really frustrating as a reader, scattered, unsatisfying. In the end a potentially really rich and interesting story was just sort of sprinkled in bits and pieces.

And there have been other times and other books where I feel the author has sort of cheated me as reader out of the full experience. It sucks. Still, as a writer, it can sometimes be hard to avoid. It’s hard not to write with the ghosts or memories or expectations of everyone you know sitting on your shoulder. At least it can be for me. I mean I usually feel relatively free when writing something, but there are those habits I mentioned earlier, which I think mostly manifest themselves subconsciously. For me it’s in the editing and the thinking of making something public that all those ghosts come up. Sometimes I cringe at my own difficult material, thinking about how it will come across, how I might be judged, who might get mad at me, what society at large might think, and all other assorted forms of bullshit that lead to self-oppression.

So it’s good to remember, I think, to err on the side of audacity. A passage I marked off in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird goes like this:

“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act–truth is always subversive.”

I do worry a bit about my manuscript, that maybe there are still places where I’m a bit absent. It’s hard to know though, because there are other places that, like I said, make me cringe with how vulnerable and revealing they are. Places where some part of me still wants to pull back. I almost feel like reading through my book yet again, but honestly, I’m pretty sick of it. I’m planning on sending out my proposal to some agents, like, tomorrow, so I’m just going to put it out there, and remember to err on the side of audacity in all my writing.

Speaking of that, I wrote a blog post last Saturday night, and it was pretty difficult, pretty personal. In the morning I woke up sort of panicked about it and took it down. I liked it. It was honest. It was just sort of rocky territory, deep shit, and I’m a bit afraid of what some of my readers would think if they knew the darker side of me (though honestly my book itself goes into some darkness so maybe it’s worth it), and I worried that some people might be mad if they read it (b/c I alluded to them, even without giving any identifying info about them). Maybe it’s worth being unliked. Maybe I’ll repost it. Still feeling a bit tentative.

Edited to add: After sitting on said blog post for two weeks or so, I read it over and decided I really liked it, it was candid, and candor is so rare sometimes, and I liked the writing, it came from somewhere deep and real, even though I was drunk when I wrote it, and some of it came out pretty, despite the sadness. And I think, why not tell the truth about my own life? If people don’t like it, fuck ’em. So that’s that.

On a totally, completely unrelated note, I’ve been kind of thinking of audacity in other ways lately. I’m really bored with my life. I do think I want to go back to school next year, and a lot of my efforts right now are geared towards saving money for that and really taking the time to find the right place for me. And yet I feel like if I don’t do something exciting in the meantime, I might go a bit crazy (crazier?). I am really itching to leave the country. Starting to feel kind of handicapped by my lack of foreign experience. I have tons of time off in the winter. Last year I went to Hawaii. If I’m really good with money, I keep thinking I’ll go somewhere foreign this winter. I’m hoping I could do it without dipping into the allotted amount I set aside every month for college. We’ll see. My top pipe dream choice would be to go to Egypt on some sort of spiritual journey. A close second would be Ireland. Who knows…I’ve been known to make wild ideas into reality, so I don’t count anything out just now.

~Emilia J

Currently Listening:
Okay I am totally embarrassed here, but since I just wrote all that stuff about being real, I might as well admit it, “Bless the Broken Road” – Rascal Flatts – not the typical music I’d listen to AT ALL (and it has all this god stuff in it that I have to just sort of ignore). I heard someone sing this song at our local Orcas Idol contest last year (actually the guy who ended up winning), and I loved his performance, so, there you have it, I like this song and I love to sing along at the top of my lungs. Oh, but I do think the guy who sang it at Orcas Idol actually sang it better.

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3 thoughts on “Err on the Side of Audacity

  1. I think you’re on to something with this audacity thing. Sometimes I think I play it too safe with my own writing. It took me quite a few drafts to get the words to bleed on Brighter than Bright and, even now, sometimes I think parts are too reserved. I wonder why we feel constrained from letting loose on paper, why it is so hard to take risks… I wonder…

  2. This post really struck a chord with me. While writing my novel there were times when I asked myself, ‘Can I really write this?’
    The answer was usually yes, because the scene in question was begging to be written. Some other scenes felt stilted, and never read well during editing, so they either went or were completely rewritten. My editor was excellent, but even he tried occasionally to stem my voice a little. Only occasionally, and I overruled him on those occasions. My story, my voice. Only an author truly knows what is right for their own book. I believe we should go ahead and write what’s right!

    • Hi Alison,

      It’s great to hear about your experience. And we are less than a week away from your book’s release date, right?

      I think the author really has to be the final authority. Dealing with criticism can be such a tricky game. My feeling is that it should always be considered, because other people do see things we don’t, and sometimes have great ideas or bring up pitfalls that we don’t see or show us when something’s unclear or hard to follow. But sometimes it’s just wrong for what we’re trying to do or say. Or sometimes a suggestion may not be exactly right for us or what we’re writing, but it might lead to brainstorming something better. So it’s always good to listen to and take in the suggestions and ideas.

      But ultimately, as a professor of mine once said, writing isn’t done by group consensus, and the decision, hoopefully informed by reader and editor responses, is the author’s.

      Plus, you can always pull back if the audacity goes too far. But it’s hard to add it when it’s not there in the first place.

      ~EJ

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