Sunday, November 13, 2005

Diving Off The Edge

Staring down at a blank page on some mornings can feel like standing on the edge of a high-diving board afraid to leap into the unknown.

From such a height the surface of the water can look more like a sheet of steel than a shimmering liquid. Rather than dive, you want to inch backward and tell yourself it's much more prudent to climb down.

But... you can't back away from fear.

Why not?

Because taking such risks--free-falling, diving--is the essence of writing. That's the goal: to plunge into uncharted territory and explore new, forbidding landscapes.

Diving into the water... cracking through that illusion of exactly what you must do if you expect to find what's hidden beneath the surface.

But how do you step off that high-diving board into ignorance and uncertainty?

John DuFresne suggests in The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction that failure and uncertainty are simply part of the territory that come with writing. People who invent things, says DuFresne, are always failing.

"Only a fool does not make mistakes," writes DuFresne. "You need to take chances when you write stories, and if you're afraid to fail, if you're afraid to take the wrong road in the story, then you won't ever write anything worthwhile. "

But your ability to take risks, explains DuFresne, depends on how you perceive mistakes. "James Joyce said that there are no mistakes, that an error is a doorway to discovery."

To find that doorway, it may prove helpful to begin diving from a lower height... to establish your faith in the process of diving.

To learn that the air will support you in your free-fall, and that the water will be there to welcome you when you reach the bottom.

Each time you dive, taking greater risks, you learn what it feels like to leap off the edge... and recognize the fear that accompanies risk-taking... and ultimately overcome it. The more risks in your writing that you take, the more likely you'll learn how to dive into riskier and riskier terrain.

It's important to remember that diving isn't about success or failure. It's about learning to find that doorway past fear... to let go of your fear and then let go again... and again. Each dive helps you see through the illusion of fear.

It was Chris Lynch, one of my teachers, who taught me about not shying away from fear. He came over to me one night as I was standing with a group of friends, waiting for the program of readings to begin, and said, "You're reading your story, right?"

Lynch (author of Shadow Boxer, Gold Dust, Freewill, Iceman and the 2005 National Book Award finalist, Inexcusable) looked at me with his blue-green eyes, and in that look was this message: If you back away from fear, it will devour you, and there will be nothing left of your guts or your soul with which to write the next day or the next week or the next year.

Give into fear, he was warning me, and you're done as a writer.

Not giving into fear, in other words, is one of the requirements of the job.

Another one of Lynch's students, J. Irvin Kuns, alludes to this fear in the acknowledgements section of her book, While You Were Out (Dutton, 2004), summing up the process of learning to dive in a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire:

"Come to the edge," He said.
They said, "We are afraid."
"Come to the edge," He said.
They came.
He pushed them... and they flew.

Learning to dive past the risks--to fly past our fear--is part of the writing process.

It never gets easier.

But, once you've done it... once you embrace uncertainty and trust the process of diving and plunge past your fear... you'll be surprised at the worlds that you'll discover hidden beneath the surface of the blank page.

(For more information about John DuFresne and his thoughts on writing, check out his blog at )

1 comment:

Jack said...

DuFresne's writer's guide, "The Lie That Tells a Truth has surpassed my former favorite, John Gardner's The Art of Fiction." After you read DuFresne you don't worry so much about diving off the board. Motifs and themes will show up. Enjoy setting the scene, observing and choosing from among all the details you might choose to describe, talk with the characters if nothing else comes to mind, get to know them. What do they want now? DuFresne can bring up these amazing stories about stories, how he got to write such-and-such a piece. I've also had the pleasure of hearing him speak at several writer's conferences. Very inspiring. Sure, we'd all like to get published, but DuFresne helps confirm your conviction about the beauty of writing even if there is (groan) no recognition.

I sure liked the choice of writers we're discussing this week; Chris Lynch is another one of my favorites. He's a good diving board example, takes a lot of risks in some of his work. "Free Will" comes to mind. Also a very early one, "Gypsy Davy." Even a less literary one, "Extreme Elvin," takes chances. For the joy of reading, "The Gold Dust Twins" scores high, even if less risky.

I checked out DuFresne's blog; it's great stuff.