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Can You Risk NOT Writing?

It’s an overused saying, but I always seem to come back to it:

“To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

Apparently, obscurity has its benefits. It’s only when you step into the spotlight that you risk being voted off by the judges. Don’t want to risk humiliation? Then don’t enter the competition. It’s as simple as that.

Perhaps the biblical equivalent is

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent (Prov. 17:28 NIV)

It’s an instant IQ boost! If you really want to avoid being criticized or counted a fool, you need only… shut up.

But shutting up is a problem for us writers. Opening our mouths — at least, putting words and ideas and stories out there — is our stock in trade. Which means it’s inevitable that criticism and charges of “foolishness” will come our way. It’s true of all artistry, every attempt at craft or speech. You cannot publish a book, paint a picture, record a song, write a blog post, produce a film, or audition for a play without someone thinking it’s utter garbage and you’re an idiot for trying.

This is where courage comes in handy.

Now, I’ve never really associated courage with being a writer. Firemen need courage. Soldiers need courage. The bomb squad needs courage. But writers? We sit at a computer and create fictitious characters. How much courage do you need to do that?

Nevertheless, we writers manage to fear and fret over umpteen things:

  • Can I really finish this book?
  • Will anyone really care?
  • Did I over-reach with this story?
  • Will anyone come to my book signing?
  • Do I act professional enough?
  • Does this headshot make me look fat?
  • Do I have a big enough platform?
  • Am I too outspoken?
  • Do I have to give public interviews?
  • Did I really deserve a one star review?
  • Do I even have a chance for a contract extension?
  • Will I ever get a contract?
  • Am I doomed to the backlist?
  • Will I be exposed as an untalented, boring idiot?
  • Is writing a novel really worth all this headache?

And on and on and on.

“The artist lives in an atmosphere of perpetual failure,” said novelist and playwright Harry Crews.

Go on, take a deep breath.

So my second novel is soon to hit the shelves. It was a grueling process that second book, full of angst and second-guessing. It’s an odd feeling knowing that readers will be soon dissecting my words, scrutinizing my characters, dissecting my prose. Will the book be liked? Will it be hated? Will it prove me to be the fool and farce I know I am?

Arthur Miller was right: “The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.” I think I’m on that “verge”? But the only other option was to “do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

And that’s too big a risk to take.

“All one can do is to achieve nakedness,
to be what one is
with all one’s faculties and perceptions,
strengthened by all the skill which one can acquire,

And then to stand before the judgment of time.”

—  Stephen Spender

That’s it. You need courage to create, to be always on “the verge of embarrassing” yourself. Courage to “be what one is,” to “achieve nakedness.” Because if you’re really called to be a writer, the biggest risk is not saying something. It’s shutting up.

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • sally apokedak April 25, 2012, 1:22 PM

    Great post.

  • Bobby April 25, 2012, 1:59 PM

    Omigosh, Omigosh, I wanna add one!

    “What will my family, who really doesn’t like stuff like what I’m writing, think?”

    That’s the one that gets me. People may criticize, dismiss or ridicule, but at least you don’t have to see them several times a year. 😛

    • C.L. Dyck April 25, 2012, 6:53 PM

      Yep. From one side, I get “why would you work in *religious* publishing?” and from the other side I get sideways looks about fiction’s spiritual questionableness, certainly supernatural fiction.

      Which is what I’m writing at the moment.

      Oy vey. But, my husband supports me and I’ve chosen my friends for strong reasons.

  • Lori Stanley Roeleveld April 25, 2012, 3:44 PM

    The exercise of our courage is as important – if not more so – than the exercise of our muscles, especially in these times. So create your art, your poetry, your music, your prose like moonshine brewed high up in the hills that suddenly spills out in rivers onto the public streets, carrying with it your potent voice, your explosive understanding of the world, your heart which is 100% proof. This is the secret recipe for strength against the pressures of a culture that threatens to excise the poet’s heart, strangle the singer’s voice, and outlaw the storyteller who weaves the scarlet thread of truth into every tale. – Lori Roeleveld

  • Marcia Laycock April 25, 2012, 5:05 PM

    Okay, so yesterday I stopped into my favourite bookstore just to browse, was on my way out and saw this shiny thing sitting on the counter. Curious. I stepped closer, peered. It was a ring with words on it. “The World is Waiting for Your Story.” Oh.
    Now this. I think I’m getting the message.
    Thanks. Marcia

  • Tony April 25, 2012, 5:10 PM

    This was certainly a timely post for me.

    Came right on time.

  • Dale Harcombe April 25, 2012, 10:39 PM

    Like Marica and Tony, I feel this is a timely post in regards to the manuscript I am currently working on.

  • Lauren at FAITH FUEL April 26, 2012, 7:51 AM

    It seems I always live on the verge of embarrassing myself! But seriously, I don’t think Jesus Christ walked in constant fear over what He would say, or do, next. Obviously we don’t have the perfection of speech and heart that He had, but we do have His Spirit to embolden us. And you’re right, our goal shouldn’t be to avoid criticism but to avoid neutralizing our effectiveness in this world. I know my goal, after years of introspection and reflection on this topic, is to personally champion, challenge, and comfort others with every word I write. So Amen! to your post, here–and God Speed to you with your books.

  • Jill April 26, 2012, 8:50 AM

    Yeah, I guess my biggest fear is of being invisible. That seems to be my life curse–but, when I’m visible, I risk being misunderstood or ridiculed. And both have occurred. The writing life is a series of contradictions. I want to be famous! I want to be anonymous!

    This is sort of the start to a new year for you (a New Book Year). Here’s a blessing for you: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

  • Mike Duran April 26, 2012, 9:11 AM

    That’s very nice of you, Jill. Thanks!

  • Bob Avey April 26, 2012, 5:18 PM

    I hear you, man.

  • Lois Hudson April 26, 2012, 10:12 PM

    And Jill, et al: The next verse after the Aaronic blessing above is stunning to me – and I feel should always be included: “So they will put my name on the Israelites [read – whoever we’re blessing and praying for], and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:27) Sounds like a promise to me.

  • Katharine April 29, 2012, 4:37 AM

    Oh Mike!

    You seem like you have it all together! And yet, you’re just as neurotic as me! (Maybe neurotic is a bit strong.) It’s very encouraging to know other writers struggle with insecurities too. I’m holding my head a little higher today!

  • Skadi meic Beorh April 29, 2012, 9:12 AM

    I have tried to stop writing. It didn’t work.

    Then one day, for the first time in 32 years, I got “writers’ block,” and it terrified me. At that time I was not walking closely with the Lord Jesus, but what He has brought out of that scary month or so will bless Him, and I thank Him for using me.

    The Irish Lore Trilogy

    Book One: The Place Where Infinity Blooms


  • Aubrey Hansen April 29, 2012, 10:08 AM

    I just wanted to stop in briefly and tell you that I really enjoyed this article. It encouraged me deeply because I have been going through a hard stage of feeling “embarrassed” or “exposed” by my current novel. It was very enlightening and cheering to hear that a professional novelist who’s been at it longer & better than I have is going through a similar phase. Thanks so much for writing out your thoughts and experiences for us to read! God bless!

  • renee williams May 1, 2012, 10:08 AM

    I apologize for this question, but I’m having a very difficult time writing my novel. I was wondering if it is wise to use curse words in a christian novel? Sometimes when I’am thinking about a certain character, I can see and hear the mannerisms of that character. I do not want to offend, but I do not want to write a story that is unrealistic when it comes to people. I feel the need to tell the story just as I see it through the eyes of the characters involved. How can I not offend christian readers? Thank you and God Bless you as you write today!

    • Skadi meic Beorh May 1, 2012, 10:24 AM

      If I may jump in, Renee, take a look at the devout Christian writings of Flannery O’Connor, maybe specifically Wise Blood. The main thing is to know who your audience is/will be. Chances are that most Christian readers will, sadly, want sanitary reading material. Open-minded Christians, though, will understand what you are doing if you make some poor tortured soul use a few curse words.

    • Carradee May 2, 2012, 6:17 AM

      And Renee, if I may offer my own 2¢:

      You will always offend someone.

      Repeat that until it sinks in. If you leave out the cursing, you’ll offend folks who think your writing “unrealistic” (because some folks assume that everyone curses). If you include it, you’ll offend folks who think your writing “unclean” (okay, so my tongue’s in my cheek a bit with that one, but you get my gist).

      You will always offend someone.

      Accept that now. It’ll help. ^_^

  • Bob Avey May 2, 2012, 10:53 AM

    It’s true that you will always offend no matter what. However, even good non-Christian writers hold the cursing to a minimum. Examples would include Stephen King, and Dean Koontz, two of the best selling authors ever.

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