For the past few years, I've had an idea for a novel I think sometime, someday very far from now, I'd maybe perhaps like to write. Possibly.
This should be surprising, since I'm barely even a fiction reader let alone writer. (I blame this on an advanced degree in literature, which rendered me an obtusely picky prose consumer.)
Despite my best efforts, though, the novel premise keeps finding its way back to me. And every time, the story is a bit more crystallized, the characters a bit more in focus. I begin to see more things.
The thing is, I can't bring myself to write it, or even attempt to for that matter. Mostly because it scares me.
Part of what scares me is the plain and simple fact I haven't dealt much with fiction, that whole realm of writing seems so un-moored to me somehow. In non-fiction genres, I can fact-check, interview, research. Somehow this gives some coordinate points to the otherwise messy world of writing, keeping me firmly situated in the X-Y graph of reality.
Mostly, though, I'm scared because this novel (the plot, the characters, all of it) feels too real. Too close. Even though the bulk of the story and characters depart from anything I know to have actually happened, the inspiration behind it originates in my own childhood experiences growing up in a highly interesting family in small-town Wisconsin. Perhaps the fictional story in this recurrent novel fantasy is my mind's way of bringing order to a pantheon of chaotic memories.
In case this sounds pleasant and fulfilling, I should note that's not actually how it feels. Every time the novel idea comes back to me, it's like touching the sharp, rusted edges of my past. Do I really want to go there, even a fictionalized version of it?
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) sharp edges usually end up producing more compelling writing than smooth ones, regardless of style or genre: fiction, non-fiction, academic prose, you name it. The writing process thrives on incongruent pieces we haven't yet managed to find a home for--they're the yeast that leavens the whole loaf.
Rough edges signify that the mind hasn't finished figuring something out yet, and when that's the case, it means the mind is still asking questions. Still being curious. Seeking. Reaching. Grappling. Experimenting.
The rough edges I'm talking about don't have to be emotionally charged or tied to some early childhood loss. They can be fascinating but tangential analyses you can't quite manage to mesh with the main argument of your article. They can be an overarching question you have about your research that keeps calling your name, but gives no immediate answers. They can be findings you've arrived at that seem to contradict the norm in your field. Or they can simply be a random idea that you think needs to voiced to start a conversation.
Whatever they are, rough edges call us forth. They call us out of our presuppositions and towards something new. And they almost always require us to say something in our own words, with our own voice, from our own, unique vantage point.
Initially, this can be terrifying.
Fear takes on some interesting faces in the writing life--we don't respond to it by literally cowering in a corner or locking the door. But we do other things. My fear pattern looks a lot like procrastination sometimes--I put off writing, and put it off and put it off. Other times, I write incessantly--giving the aura of progress--but really I'm just simply plodding around the easiest and simplest piece of research I can find, afraid to venture out of my own concentric thinking. Still other times, new ideas occur to me and I simply shut them down. "That will take too long to explore," I'll say to myself, "Stop getting distracted."
When I step back, it's easier to understand these behaviors as fear responses. Deep down, the fear is that I can't do this, that if I try to take on any remotely complex question or argument, I will inevitably fail to make sense of it. Sometimes it's also the fear that such rough edges--if I explore them--will destroy the rest of my work by undermining my original argument or perception of things. Obviously that's the whole point of research and writing, but sometimes we get attached to those initial hypotheses.
I'm lucky to have had a number of friends and mentors who, when reading my work, can spot when I'm avoiding deeper questions out of fear or insecurity. More and more, their curiosity about my ideas has helped me honor the part of my mind that seeks out the sharp edges of thought.
Usually when we push past the fear and write along the sharp edges, they get smoother. It can take hours or days or longer, but the unanswered questions begin to lift, the shards of incongruency begin to gather together. If you incorporate the once sharp edges into what you're doing, your work probably won't look like what you originally wanted it to look like, but the writing or research will likely be more robust and compelling.
I don't know if I will ever write the novel, although I hope I do. And as scared as I am, I hope I do the sharp edges justice.
Also published on Medium.com.
Writer's Loom Blog
In praise of tight writing in a world of loose ends.