Sunday, January 15, 2006

One Writer's Process: J. Irvin Kuns

Before she can dive into words and stories, J. Irvin Kuns, the author of While You Were Out, has to inch her way toward the edge of a cliff.

Here's how Kuns describes her process of diving into deep water:

"I coax and cajole and bribe, assuring myself that I will feel better if I write something. Anything.

"But why do I need to coax and cajole and bribe? Why doesn’t the idea of creating something new with words sound like a fun and rewarding thing to do for myself?

"Because I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to pull it off.

"The beautiful idea floating in my head is going to be ruined if I try to put it into words. 'I dream of an eagle,' Edith Wharton laments, 'I give birth to a hummingbird.'

"My list of other fears is long but legitimate, I think.

"Fear of change: Each book I write changes me. Who will I be on the other side of writing it?

"Fear of abandonment. Family and friends are sick and tired of me doing nothing but sitting in front of a computer all the time. I am no fun.

"Fear of being busted. The same family and friends are on to me. Wait a minute, they think. You’re not a writer. Writers write. Writers finish things. You’re a phony.

"And then of course there’s Fear of failure, Fear of success, Fear of losing ground, Fear of wasting my life, Fear of exposure, Fear of lying, Fear of telling the truth, Fear of power, Fear of responsibility.

"But even with all of these Fears breathing down my neck, Fear of regret looms larger still.
They say that we don’t regret the things we did in life, we only regret the things we didn’t do. And I don’t want to die with a case of the 'shoulda, woulda, couldas' haunting me.

"So I know I have to make that leap.

"But sometimes it feels like playing Frogger, trying to get across the busy street with traffic coming at me from both ways, horns honking, tires screeching, other people going places while I sit timidly on the curb, going nowhere, not moving for fear of getting flattened by the Mack truck of doubt coming from one direction or the Greyhound bus of ineptitude barreling at me from the other. Finally, I take a deep breath and I leap. Splat. Leap again. Splat. Once more, quicker this time. Leap, leap, leap. Splat.

"I don’t remember ever feeling completely safe in my life anyway, so I guess I figured that I might as well accept that fear is inevitable; I became a bit of a risk taker early on. I remember urging my dad when riding with him in the car as a kid to 'Go fast, Daddy! Go fast!' and then doing just that when I was old enough to get behind the wheel myself. (Okay, so maybe we do regret some of the things we did.). I remember clinging to a sled towed behind the car at what seemed like 50 mph on the snow covered country roads where I grew up and loving it. Sky diving and white water rafting were thrilling. Attending high school, dating, marrying and having children were downright scary. So what ever made me think that writing, of all things, should feel safe? And I don’t think I wanted it to feel safe. Feeling safe is copping out. 'Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing,' says Helen Keller.

"So forget security, I tell myself. Think opportunity. And not just opportunity but responsibility. As someone who watches and wonders and ponders and notices, and who strives to be 'one of those on whom nothing is lost,' I feel a responsibility to communicate what I have seen, wondered, pondered and noticed, and to do it as truthfully and as meaningfully as I can.

"Writing is how we process all the stuff of our lives and if we do it well enough – the writing and the processing – we need to risk sharing it. Who knows? Maybe our work will help others with their own processing. Our stories could throw light on things that might not otherwise be noticed. Through writing we could reveal new ways to cope, to understand, to deal, to forgive.

"Most days I don’t soar like an eagle, but I accept that as part of the process. In the meantime, I’ll nurture my fragile little hummingbird."


jack said...

I share most of Kuns’ anxieties and fears about the writing trade, maybe foremost are failure, wasting life, and perhaps abandonment.

Failure: there’s so much negative feedback. The curt, batch-printed dismissal note that your work doesn’t meet present needs, but good luck elsewhere. If there wasn’t at least one critical exchange with another writer on the same piece I might have wondered if a piece was even intelligible to the editors. So, if you can find another writing friend to exchange work with, save your psyche with this friendship; you’ll find literary satisfactions even if they don’t include publication.

Wasting life: writing might be seen only as a marginally acceptable pursuit, unless, of course, you’re already a demonstrable success; in which case, you might notice a change in your acquaintance’s attitude when you let this fall. If, however, you’re not yet a demonstrable success, keep writing, and the waste of life might even feel a bit daring.

Abandonment: one doesn’t like to feel vulnerable, but this does seem to be a risk. When you tell friends you can’t go somewhere because you have to do some writing—writing? Your isolation might increase even more than it is. Well, anyhow, you may enjoy your newfound freedom of fewer demanding friends and be able to get on with your writing. There’s nothing else quite like it.

I enjoyed Kuns’ discussion.

Anonymous said...

Judy's comment about processing the stuff of our lives hits home. This is why we are hooked on reading, no? We find bits and pieces of ourselves and our lives in the books of others. Why shouldn't we write the bits and pieces of our lives into our books, even if it makes us more vulnerable?

We bare our souls much like the musician who sits on a stage and pours all her physical and mental capacities into a single performance hoping to communicate what she has discovered in the process of practice.

We,however, are lucky enough to be able to brood over our performance and make subtle changes before we send it off to be scrutinized. The only problem is the wait for a critique takes so darn long. No instantaneous applause or booing!

Barbara Savage Huff