I love to ski, but seem to come to it with more injuries every year. Right knee, upper back, right wrist, left foot. I got a cortisone shot in my heel this time, determined not to miss out. My sister puts it somewhere between crazy and brave. Poised above an icy run at the top of Jackson Hole, for the first time I hesitated, thinking of how disastrous a fall would be, wondering whether I’d lost my courage. If writing were a sport, I’d be even more covered with bruises. Does the rough and tumble of experience wear you out, or does it somehow set you free?
In writing, rejection is a constant. Think about what endless criticism does to a person. Does it build you up or drag you down? Of course, it drags you down. You have to look elsewhere to find reasons to believe. Experience can be a burden – you begin to know all too well what could go wrong. I’ve read countless writing blogs and taken classes premised on what NOT to do, an approach which I find paralyzing. Creativity thrives on courage, the kind of boldness that propels you down the hill.
When I ski, there’s a moment when every turn feels out of control. When I have to embrace the sensation of falling. But then I feel my weight in my feet and the edge of my blades in the snow, and my trust in myself rushes back. Again, and again, all the way down. An embrace of risk for a fleeting sense of triumph.
What writers need is a trick to learning life’s lessons without giving up. Experience is important, but I also think you need to mix a little ornery in your attitude. To keep your ears open but still stay a bit deaf. A touch of writerly defiance – to blend some crazy in your brave. To believe in your own artistic vision even if the world tells you not to.
Unlike writing, skiing is a physical sport. There will be things we can’t do as we get older, but that’s all the more reason to cultivate courage inside.
The skill you’re building isn’t just writing, it’s resilience.
I never realized how important short-term memory was to happiness until my father began to lose his. If I tell him I’m going to visit, he forgets the moment we hang up. He’s happy when I get there, but he misses out on the anticipation. Last summer, he kept forgetting to be excited about the Indians games. We all need things to look forward to, in life and in fiction. Many of us turn to fiction for exactly that: the sense of expectation that our real lives at times may lack.
I’ve written a lot about the importance of tension in fiction. Tension involves a possible threat to or question about a positive outcome. That counterpoint is essential. We need hope. We want to see mysteries resolved, a couple united, a soul redeemed. We read on because we want to believe. Not every story has a happy ending, but we crave something to look forward to, even if instead it’s justice served or the satisfaction of insight.
The past year was a difficult one for many, and the future is uncertain. We worry about our families, our friends, our country, our planet. The future of humankind. Hope may be something we have to work at consciously. In your writing, and in your life, I’d like to encourage you to look forward. To forge a new path for your readers and yourself.
This week we turned our blog over to CWC2016 attendee Ellen T. McKnight, a fiction writer published in literary journals and currently at work on a novel. She teaches writing workshops and hosts a blog about writing called Connecting through Story. Follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.
Like many of you, I’d rather be closeted away with my writing than do just about anything else. But the kind of inner life that drives good writing isn’t always compatible with the extroversion required of writers these days. The idea of self-promotion makes us wince. We need help to understand how the inner and outer aspects of writing fit together. This year’s Chicago Writers Conference was a great reminder of the importance of putting ourselves out there.
For more of my guest post on the CWC blog, please click here.
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