One of the things I always enjoyed about reading as a kid, and even now, is how it lets me experience things I’d otherwise never experience. I’ll never be a top-clearance spy (or am I? O.o), or live in 19th century Europe, or rail at a dragon. But I could live it, in a way, through books. Reading was experience—and it was also experience with a safety net, because while there’s plenty to be learned from books, there was no (well, little…if you’re me, you’ll always find some way of making the most mundane things dangerous…) danger of actual harm.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about that feeling of safety, and how it relates to writing. Once We Were was very much an “unsafe” book for me, in that writing it stretched me to the point of my capabilities—and sometimes, while I was writing it, I feared it stretched me beyond them. Writers are always learning, no matter how many books we’ve written. And I think most writers recognize that there are certain parts of writing that they are good at, and other parts that they’re maybe not as good at. For example, a writer might be excellent at writing action scenes, but not so good at writing quiet dialogue scenes. Or very good at writing romantic scenes, but more lacking on shaping powerful family dynamics.
Well, what happens if the writer gets a story idea that involves tackling a great deal of family dynamics? What if the main tension in this plot she’s dreamt up involves the trials and tribulations of a great big 3-generational family? The question comes up: should she write it? Should she risk it?
To put this question on another genre of art—I draw a bit…never super seriously, but I do like to do it, and I did a lot more of it when I was younger. I especially liked drawing faces, and I got pretty good at it, enough so that when I doodled in class, my friends would be excited about it, and I’d be happy to draw things for them. I never really practiced drawing bodies, though, until it got to the point that if I tried to draw a full figure, the head would come out looking pretty good, but the body would be rather poorly rendered. So I stopped. When I dreamed up ideas for drawings that involved people in complicated poses, I tried to sketch them with billowing clothes or something so I could hide the fact that I wasn’t very good at getting the angles or proportions of their bodies right.
I didn’t want to do the same thing with writing. The irrefutable truth is, no one is good at everything, even within one field. And writing—story-crafting—is such a large, complicated thing, that it’s infinitely more difficult to be good at every aspect of it, especially from the get-go. We dream of writing stories that we fear may be beyond our capabilities—and then we wonder if it’s worth the risk. If it’s better to shoot for a lower goal, so we have a better chance of reaching the basket.
This sort of yearning for safety applies to a lot of different aspects of the writing process, I think. It may be what keeps a writer from deciding to write a trilogy instead of just one book. Or writing the book of their heart, and not whatever she hears is “hot” right now. It might be what prevents a writer from including a POC as a character, despite not being a POC herself. Or setting the story in a historical period that would require a lot of research.
This isn’t to say, of course, that one shouldn’t reasonably assess one’s own abilities. There’s no harm in writing that standalone book first before tackling the 10-tome epic, if you believe writing the standalone will make you better prepared in the future. But there’s also a difference between saving a challenge for later because you want to work up to it, and setting it aside completely because it will be difficult, and there is the chance of failure.
I’d much rather take the risk, and leave the safety net behind.