Saturday, November 19, 2011

This is dedicated to the one I

The other day on twitter, someone asked if I had a specific person in mind when I wrote, someone to whom I was writing. He had written something for his son, and having that audience in his head helped him.

I started to answer with a "No, absolutely not. That's the sort of thing that would paralyze me." and then realized the reason behind my answer was actually a good deal more complicated, so I'm giving it here.    

So let's step back in time to the summer of 2008, when I was at Clarion. It's probably no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. He was also my week 4 instructor. And the way Clarion works is that the instructors run the critique sessions of the stories that get workshopped that week, and then also have a one-on-one conference with the writers. So, you know, no big deal, only someone whose writing I thought was brilliant going to be reading and picking apart something I wrote, and then meeting with me in person to tell me  exactly what he thought. No pressure, right?

Let me just say that if I ever take up a career in burglary, the first thing I am stealing is the copy of my week 4 story out of the Clarion archives. It is, perhaps, the worst thing I have ever written. And it is that level of disaster because I focused on the audience, and forgot about the thing I had come there to do: tell a story.

Thankfully, Neil is as kind as he is talented, so when it came time for our conference, instead of rehashing the horribleness of what I had written, he said, "I watched you during the critique, so I know you know what's wrong with the story. Let's talk about your writing, instead. Tea?"

And so we had tea, and talked, and one of the things we talked about was fear. Fear that people would think things about me, because of what I had written. That they would judge me. The fear that made me focus on the audience, and not on the story. The fear that would suffocate any talent that I had, unless I told it to go fuck itself, and wrote what I needed to write.

I'd like to tell you that happened all at once, that I am always and ever brave whenever I sit down and open a notebook. But it's hard - my grandmother reads everything I publish, you guys. I have scenes that I hide from, things it takes me multiple drafts to get the emotion right in, because it hurts, it makes me sick to my stomach to put those things on paper. I still can't write a sex scene without blushing, even when I don't remind myself that one of my regular readers is a Jesuit.

And I am always aware that I am not writing solely for myself. If I were, I would not be seeking publication. I want people to read what I write. Sometimes, I even know what people will be reading it - I have had editors ask for stories, and I have, on occasion, written things as gifts. But that is an awareness I push aside when I am writing, because I need to fill my head with story until there is no longer any room for fear.


  1. Getting any idea of an audience out of my head is essential for me, so I have a game I play with myself, where I basically just continue to believe that nothing I write will ever actually be published. It's a bit of a self-esteem killer, but otherwise very workable.

  2. A few weeks ago, I had to speak in public. The audience was not hostile, but I was in panic anyway. omeone then gave me that hint of, instead of looking at the people, try to look at some point just above the heads of the last line in the room. That really helped me, and now I wonder if the trick would work for writing.

    That said, maybe the best stories I've ever written were not only meant but explicitly dedicated to someone. Usually to someone who had broken my heart. :-)

  3. Marcos - as with anything writing related, the way things work for me is the way things work for me. The best way to write is the way that puts words on the page. So if that's channeling heartbreak and putting a face on it for you, then you're good.

    Well, maybe not good, as such, but you're writing.

  4. I think fear is exactly why writing for my boy was easier than my previous writing attempts. I mean, how critical can he be, right? And the critical reception from his mother and grandmothers was positively glowing. When you're a dad who writes a story for his son, the critical bar is pretty low.

    I'm just getting started writing. So I don't think I realized that fear was holding me back until I found an audience I didn't need to fear, but it makes sense. This realization seems like something I can build on. Thanks as always for sharing your experience with me.

  5. I know this isn't especially relevant, but...I didn't think your Week Four story was nearly as bad as you claim! At the time, I thought it was an incredibly brave first venture into very difficult territory, and the images were absolutely haunting. I still remember the character's vivid feeling of never being able to sleep. It was really visceral, raw writing, but it wasn't bad. Just wanted to say, you don't need to be as hard on yourself about that story as you are ;)

  6. Also--to answer Matt's question myself--I'm honestly not sure who I write for. I write to please myself, always, but also other specific readers...with NIGHTWORK, I was writing for my friend Jay (who ended up directing it), and with "Five Letters from New Laverne," I was writing for an ex-boyfriend who'd broken my heart (but we're good friends now!). Maybe my answer is a little different for each work.

  7. My dear Monica - you are remembering the week 5 story, not the week 4 (angels, dust, and my attempt to write a winged love scene. Yikes is the only word.) But thank you.

  8. Magicians aren't supposed to reveal their secrets, so I can't believe Neil Gaiman would just throw it out there, allowing anyone to tap into that mystical fountain which cures all ills, heals all wounds, and solves all problems.


  9. Philip - Behind all great art, is a great cup of tea.

  10. Somehow, Kat, you write the things I need to hear -- almost always just when I need to hear them. For that, I am beyond grateful.

    There are times when I know a story is going wrong, because I start thinking about the audience. I started writing a ghost story a month ago. It took an insane and unexpected turn that works, but I can see where it needs to go. For now, I put it away. I have yet to be able to make myself write it the way it needs to be written. I will do it, soon.

    Again, thank you.

  11. @Kat....hahahaha, sorry! Oh dear me. I don't remember angels and dust and winged sex.

    At least you didn't write about a talking eyeball in Siberia.


  12. Thank you for writing this.
    I write pretty dark stuff and I'm constantly wondering what the hell my friends and family will think when they read. (I'm talking more on the line of "man, that's twisted" rather than "that's so weird").
    So it's good to know that I'm not alone in fearing the judgment and other people's thoughts. Also, it's awesome that you got that - earned - moment with Mr. Gaiman. I absolutely venerate the man and his writing, therefore I can imagine the immense value that chat over tea must have had for you.
    Thanks again for the post.