Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Courage of Writers

If you’re a writer, you’ve been blessed with courage. Oh, not me, I can hear you saying. I’m not brave at all sitting here behind my computer typing my (fill in the blank). You may believe that the courageous writers are only those found on the frontlines of wars, or going undercover for a little muckraking. Dear writer friend, I hate to tell you this, but you’re wrong. You may not be dodging literal bullets or interviewing felons (yet), but you’re brave. Anyone willing to commit his thoughts to paper is taking a courageous step. Why?

First of all, tackling a blank page is daunting. I once had a lovely lady working as my assistant who was terrified to write a single sentence on her own. I discovered this when I asked her to write a two-sentence memo. After a week had passed, I asked her where the memo was. She blushed a little when she admitted, “I couldn’t think of what to say.” She was deeply embarrassed to confess that she’d tried and failed to complete the memo. Now, this was as simple as a writing assignment can get. We had an employee who had failed to show up for a training class, and we needed a memo that said something to effect of: “Sally Smith was absent from XYZ class on Tuesday due to being sick. We will reschedule as soon as possible.” As simple as it sounds, my assistant was defeated by that blank page and blinking cursor. Her terror paralyzed her. Writers must overcome the terror of a totally white Word screen on a regular basis. If the sight of a blank page makes your heart pound, take a deep breath and remember that you are courageous. You are ready to translate your thoughts into words, and no blank page should stand in your way.

I have no problems with blank pages, you may say, and I still don’t see how sitting here writing my family history constitutes courage. Do you think that everyone who reads your work will agree with you? Are you sure that your memories will match those of your family? I suspect the answer to both questions is “no,” in which case I maintain that spilling your mental beans on paper, for all to challenge, contradict, and criticize, is quite brave.

In my own case, I’ve had to learn to steady my nerves when I must call people to ask any kind of questions. Asking questions is a routine part of journalism – even mundane news stories need correct facts and a few quotes – and not everyone responds to e-mail. When I have to call someone to get information, my palms sweat and my mouth goes dry. For some bizarre reason, phone calls are worse for me than talking to people in person. I worry that I’ll sound like an idiot, or even worse, an imposter. In the back of my mind, I’m worried that someone will challenge my right to talk to them: “Who are you!? You’re not a real writer! Why should I tell you what our entry fee at the children’s zoo is?” Even if you’re not doing news stories, you still may have to call or interview people. Trust me – I can verify from years of personal experience that most people are happy to talk to a writer. I find people either are thrilled to hear from me – what I call the “Thank God you called” reaction – or they act like I’m on assignment for 60 Minutes. (Those in the 60 Minutes group are a topic for another day.)

A friend of mine sent me a one-line e-mail last week: This is hard. He’s working on a book and has run into the doldrums of an extended project. This illustrates another form of writerly courage – the courage of perseverance. This type of courage is the most important for writers to cultivate. Even if you love the blank screen and aren’t afraid to ask people for intimate details, you must be brave enough to keep writing even when it feels like your project is the equivalent of jamming bamboo shoots under your nails. You must be brave enough to keep writing when your internal critic is screaming at you that what you’ve done sucks, that you’ll never finish, that you’re a hopeless pipe dreamer to ever think you could succeed. Every writer has been at this point, and this is when you must summon your courage, banish your internal critic, and get back to work.

Still think you won’t be dodging any bullets? I say grab a flak vest and a notepad, and let’s go!
Note: I originally included a great photo of a danger-loving person on a line ride, undoubtedly a writer facing his inner courage issues, but for some strange reason Blogger won't fully display any images I upload. Dealing with Blogger.... grrrr.... yet more grist for future blog entries!

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