I have never in my life been as all-in and sure of myself as the crazy dancing man at the Crosby, Stills & Nash concert in Chicago last week. I realize his experience may have been, let’s just say, chemically enhanced, or possibly enlivened by the manic phase of a mental illness. But he didn’t seem drunk or high or ill: he simply seemed passionate and unself-conscious in a way that astonished a more restrained person like me. I found myself thinking about that in the context of writing. In her blog, Carly Watters talks about the importance of risk taking for writers. Why don’t we more often hear of literary agents urging writers to take risks? Well, we do if they work out, but that’s the thing about risks: you don’t know that when you take them. What risks to take are up to each artist, as part of her or his artistic vision. Sometimes I worry that the way we writers critique each other may hamper that.
We’ve all heard of how J.K. Rowling was riding in a train when she was struck by the idea of a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard. Talk about being all-in: she structured a seven-book series out of that idea before she had the contract for a single book. Veronica Roth was so obsessed with her concept of a dystopian society divided by virtues that she wrote her first book when most of us would have had our hands full with college. Genre writers aren’t alone in this: literary writers can get obsessed too. Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a blindfold and earplugs – I’d call that pretty crazy. But when an idea lights up your brain, I think you should go for it, even if it seems foolish or risky to others.
Technique can be a place to take risks as well as story concept. Magic realism came out of literary risk taking. So did story cycles with their roving points of view. The genre-blending mentioned in Watters’ blog is another example. Why can some writers get away with this, but not others? The old adage about learning to walk before you run is worth keeping in mind. Choosing to depart from the norm isn’t the same as being lazy. If you’ve found a great voice that doesn’t follow the rules of grammar, that’s different from not taking the trouble to check. You want to understand and be capable of following the rules you’re rejecting. You want to have reasons for your departures, even if they’re only in your own head.
Of course, no one can tell you in advance whether your risks will pan out in the marketplace. That’s what makes them risks. Sometimes when traditional publishing fails, writers believe so strongly in their work that they decide to self-publish. Other times they decide to move on to new work – to take on new risks and visions.
My wariness about critiques has to do with the possible chilling effect of peer judgment on risk taking and artistic vision. I still believe in the critique process at the heart of MFA programs and writer’s workshops across the country, often called the Iowa model. This is when fellow writers read each other’s work and provide detailed comments as they sit around a table, first about what’s working and then about what’s not, often with an instructor who weighs in at the end, only after which the author may respond. But you need to find a balance between being open enough to learn and self-protective enough to keep your voice and vision intact.
An excellent writer and good friend of mine, J. Scott Smith, writes dialogue without quotation marks, similar to Cormac McCarthy. One of her short stories, “Lynlee Floats,” is posted at Solace in a Book. As part of a recent critique of one of Smith’s novel chapters, the instructor asked a room full of writers for a show of hands about whether the lack of quotation marks made the piece harder to read. Most hands went up – that’s information for the writer – but Smith has her own good reasons for this stylistic choice. I applaud her commitment to her vision.
Sometimes you need to ignore the rest of the room and dance.