Taking a Risk in Writing

Last week Jessica Morrell blogged about taking risks in our writing. She reflected on conversations with writers who hesitated to write from their hearts – memoirs and edgy novels – because of what others, especially their families, might think of their words.

Her advice was “Just risk it. Go towards the hard truths, the pain, the sad, sore secrets, the heartbreak. Fortune sides with those who dare and this is especially true for writers and artists. Writing is an act of hope, of bravery, of necessity. Not only do we grapple with such things as structure and language, but also our doubts about what we write and why we write it. Writing is plunging inward, getting lost and tangled, sometimes finding our way, emerging full of pain and exaltation and fear. Writing requires making a mess, a loss of control. In other words, we learn how to write by writing. But if you spend too much energy on holding back and worrying about embarrassing your family and telling their secrets, the writing just might be doomed from the start.”

Boy, did this ever get me thinking! I don’t know if I could give the same advice. Oh, I write with honesty. Of course I do. I believe in telling the truth. I even let my characters run off at the mouth occasionally, without censoring.

The thing is, I don’t deliberately touch topics or mobilize the kind of characters that might take me past the boundaries of my personal standards. That kind of risk isn’t comfortable. It could mean I’d hurt feelings, shock sensitivities, reveal an ugliness better left hidden.

So, if I hold back in my writing am I not being as honest as I thought? If I don’t dig into the murky depths do I lie by omission? Is this a disservice to my readers?

Jessica says that writing with abandon, taking risks (or choosing not to) is dangerous. “Your life or cerebellum is not on the line, but your soul and heart are.”

Maybe it’s not readers that I’m denying, but myself.

Where do you stand when it comes to taking risks in your writing?

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20 thoughts on “Taking a Risk in Writing

  1. Erica Vetsch says:

    Wow, I’m going to have to think about this for awhile. I don’t know if I’m much of a risk taker in my writing.

  2. Paul Greci says:

    I take risks with my writing. At least, that’s my perception of what I do. I’m never sure what will be in that final draft but I do a lot of exploration, pushing scenes farther than I originally envisioned them going.

    I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to go about writing and risk-taking can be defined in so many different ways. I think if you are writing from the heart that is the main thing.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post, Carol!!!

  3. joylene says:

    I’m trying to break down some barriers on my current WIP. It’s not easy. I keep cutting scenes, then putting them back in. I worry about what my Christian friends will think. Then I worry that I’m not being true to the story. It’s a risky business printing words that you can never take back. And I don’t have any answers. Except maybe to take all of your writing very seriously. But to enjoy yourself in the process. That’s almost redundant.

  4. elderfox says:

    Hi…I’ve taken risks in my writing BUT it is often thoughts leaking thru ink or lead onto blank journal pages that I keep and might or might not use in my writing as some is pretty raunchy while other is personal and FMEs only. Yes, Carol, I know…I know…but I have a start…again 🙂 for a novel. Even know the end of it :).
    P.S. I believe we have to “think” and “act” as our “people” would, it is their life, not ours.

  5. Taking risks doesn’t mean our writing has to be offensive, or deal with sensitive topics. We may write from the heart, but we get to choose which areas of our heart to expose. Some writers choose to reveal secrets, shock people, stir up controversial issues, or otherwise “take risks” that might make their work appeal to a wider audience, but I think our personal standards have boundaries for a reason: some things are better left unsaid.

    There is a market for stories based on dark truths, pain, and suffering, but I’d rather focus on the brighter side of life, on things that bring joy and hope to others. I don’t think that makes me dishonest.

  6. I do take risks writing about myself, but at times I have regretted it. I’m not sure how this question relates to fiction. I think I agree with Carol Benedict. There are boundaries and standards to consider.

  7. Judith Robl says:

    Some of the “risks” of writing are not mine to tell. A number of years ago, a beloved son-in-law turned on his family murdering three of my grandchildren and very nearly their mother (my daughter) as well.

    My current non-fiction WIP, “Properly CLAD: How to Wear a Garment of Praise When Your Life Is Rags and Tatters,” came out of that experience. It answers the comments I heard most often: “you’re so strong” and “I don’t see how you do it.”

    There are things I cannot say in this work because they are hers, not mine, to tell. When your writing violates, or gives the appearance of violating, the confidence of another, you have no business putting it in front of the public eye.

    When you are journaling, you can let it all hang out. I believe that we need to plumb those depths in ourselves to make our writing richer. But when you are writing to publish, discretion and sensitivity should rule, in my opinion.

    Carol Benedict is paraphrasing scripture in her comment.

    Philippians 4:8
    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (KJV)

    If you are rejoicing in the Lord and praising God, you cannot dwell on the dark things. Okay, end of sermon, off my soapbox for now. Have a great Thursday.

  8. My answer: It depends on who is involved in the risks I take. I write nf, so if I have a story about an ornery character that may read it someday, I will change the name and a few characteristics to mask their identity. If it’s about me, I’m pretty frank. Most of my readers enjoy that–it makes them feel comfortable with me.

  9. territiffany says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading the comments. I think each time I write a new book, I go deeper into risk-taking territoriy. I really want to but I know I have held back until I learn more about writing.

  10. Dave Ebright says:

    Don’t think I’m smart enough to know if I’m taking risks. I was once ‘told’ by a more established YA author that my (1st) YA was good but should incorporate some ‘edginess’ to make it more appealing to a broader group of kids – explained further as mild language & semi-adult situations. Now I’m not going to be the content judge of what others put out there, it’s not like I’m a saint, prude, or expert, but ‘edgy’ wasn’t for me. If that ultimately spells doom for my ‘commercial success’, that’s okay, I’m just a part-time storyteller after all …..

    Bottom line – I think you make the choices that work for you.

  11. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I appreciate knowing how you feel about this.

    Erica – I don’t know that I’m much of a risk taker, either. I let myself get emotionally involved in my storytelling but often stop short of exposing certain vulnerabilities. I think I’d be a better writer if I didn’t.

    Paul – You’re probably right that risk taking can be defined in various ways. What it means to write from the heart is equally hard to define but being honest, however far we delve, is imperative.

    Joylene – That’s a tough obstacle to face, but if we worry about what others will think of our writing we aren’t being true to ourselves and I think that will ultimately stifle creativity.

  12. Earlene – If we’re expressing our inner selves somewhere – anywhere – that’s gotta be a step in the right direction, right? I’m glad to hear you’ve started something that is re-igniting your enthusiasm. Now keep writing till you reach that ending. 🙂

    Carol B. – I agree that we are the ones to decide what topics we will address in our writing, and I’m not one to reveal secrets, offend or shock readers. But I’m not sure if I agree that “choosing which areas of our heart to expose” is possible if we are to write from the depths of our experiences. It’s definitely something I struggle with.

    Carol Ann – In fiction I write from a Christian worldview, and so, as I said to Carol B., I get to decide what topics I’ll address. There are tough situations in life and I don’t choose to avoid them, but I hope I can write with both honesty and sensitivity.

  13. Judith – I like how you’ve expressed it: some things are not ours to tell. Information we glean in confidence most certainly has to be respected. When it comes to writing memoir or biography, however, there may be ‘savoury’ memories or facts that aren’t really private because others are already aware of them and I suspect that’s what Jessica was referring to – conversations and behaviour that are part of an individual’s persona… things that if omitted would leave our account lacking in authenticity.

    Jeanette – You bring up another aspect entirely. I write a lot of non-fiction, too. Do you ever question how far can you move away from true facts or details before it’s no longer accurate and it becomes fiction? When do changes and embellishment send us across the boundary?

    Terri – I’m loving this conversation. It’s making me think about all my tender places and timid words! 🙂

    Dave – I’ve heard other YA authors (and agents) mention that edginess is what sells nowadays – that today’s YA readers are more worldly – but if you have a target audience in mind you’ll know if it’s right for you or not. I think Paul and Carol B. are right in that taking risks means different things – not necessarily writing offensively but being true to yourself and your values.

  14. Laura Best says:

    Wow, this is a tough one. I’m called to remember a story I once wrote and I asked my mother read to get some feed back. Big mistake. One character in the book used language that my mother thought was inappropriate. She was horrified to think it might one day be published. (She wouldn’t be able to tell her friends that I had a published book—her words.) I found it difficult to explain to her that sometimes our characters are not nice, sometimes they use nasty language. (For the record it wasn’t horribly bad language, either.)

    That incident really made me think about my thoughts on how others would react to my writing. Before then I don’t think I’d even considered it. I was just interested in telling a story.

    I’d have to say that I’m probably not ready to take any risks at this time. Although at some point this opinion might change.

    • Laura, this is exactly what Jessica was talking about! And it’s a real dilemma. Do we lose ourselves in the characters’ story and let them speak as real people, or sanitize their words to ensure we don’t have to apologize later? Why do people assume our characters are a reflection of us?

  15. Jenn Hubbard says:

    We can’t let the possible judgment of others stop us. For one thing, we can’t even predict what people will object to. People object to all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons.
    The examples that spring to most people’s minds are works that include sex, profanity, or violence. The fact is, these are parts of human experience, and there are important things we need to think about in these areas. That doesn’t mean every writer needs to write about them or to address them in the same way, and readers should decide for themselves what to read. But these topics are important parts of our overall literature.
    It can be just as scary to write about religious or spiritual matters for fear that people will think the writer is proselytizing, or for fear that people who experience faith differently will argue or take offense.
    It can be scary to write about families for fear that our own real-life families will think we’re writing about them.
    But the best writing is true and honest and authentic. It may not be literally true, but it will have a deeper truth. We shouldn’t stifle that truth out of fear, although we may choose to go slowly and reveal that truth only when we are ready, and strong enough to stand behind it. Ultimately, we need to tell our stories based on that inner knowledge.

    • Jenn, you’ve really nailed it! Thank you for such a thoughtful response. There is no way to predict how every person will react to a particular subject. When we deliberately exclude certain experiences from our stories for fear of offending someone, not only will the reading experience will be less than honest, we’ll likely offend somebody else who sees it as shallow and inconsequential writing!

      Your comment that “we may choose to go slowly and reveal that truth only when we are ready, and strong enough to stand behind it” is profound.

  16. Judith Robl says:

    Well said!! Hear, hear!

  17. […] Jessica Morrell advices: “Just risk it. Go towards the hard truths, the pain, the sad, sore secrets, the heartbreak. Fortune sides with those who dare…Writing is an act of hope, of bravery, of necessity…” […]

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