Look on the jacket back at the photo of the writer whose book you’re reading. That’s right, the image of the man or woman with artfully tousled hair, a somber expression in their eyes, leaning on a stack of books. The photos don’t show the lower extremities of the authors, or if they do, legs are covered in slacks or long skirts and tall boots.
And why is that? Because otherwise their knees would show. No worries about knobby or fleshy joints. It’s the danger of revealing the purple scrapes from falling down, the swollen bumps of landing hard on one’s patella, the bloody bruises endured while writing. Writers fall; banged up knees are proof.
We writers must be willing to fall if we’re going to achieve memorable writing. Like kids who learn to ride bikes, ice skate, or leap over hurdles, we tumble, we topple, we trip, we land on our butts and our knees. It’s the only way to learn to do challenging things. Child athletes and adult writers follow the same scenario. We get up and try it again. Fear of falling on our faces prevents mastering skills, so we try again, sometimes writing crap, and fall again, aiming for our personal best. Who knew that writing would be so dangerous? In what writing course did the instructor advise you to invest in Johnson & Johnson stock so you could recoup on your investment in band aids?
If you are so afraid of falling that you never venture beyond the safety of the formulae for “successful” writing, if you shy from trying strange plot twists to settle for the tried and true, if you are risk averse to including controversy in your stories, you may be too rigid to write your personal best. Your knees will be picture perfect but your story dry and predictable.
Consider the work of Andre Dubus III. My favorite is House of Sand and Fog. It’s about people who would never meet were it not for the house they all claim to own. Many readers agree there is no sympathetic main character because everyone is so flawed that it’s hard to admire anyone. Perhaps the only positive characters are the house itself, an innocent object at the center of wretched human behavior, or the young son, another innocent caught in a whirlwind that stokes the terrible end of the story. Beneath the surface battle for the house is a battle about damaged people caught up in social dysfunction that mirrors fractured contemporary desires and addictions. Read that synopsis again and you will see little ordinary element. Dubus took an enormous risk by ignoring the formula.
The story isn’t a thinly disguised autobiography, but I bet his sensitive portrayal of each injured character is drawn from his own cache of injuries. It’s likely he pulled from the depths of what has wounded him to be able to portray the wounded souls that inhabit the book. He was willing to be vulnerable, to tear out his heart and examine what hurts, in order to write convincingly about the vulnerabilities of others. If we can’t see ourselves committing the reckless acts of his characters, we can at least feel the pain of their awful choices. The result is an unforgettable book that generates deserved admiration among readers. It is the work of a master.
Creativity blooms from being vulnerable. An open heart, an open mind, an open hand reaching out to grasp what is strange and unknown, to welcome what hurts, humiliates, or makes us sob. A writer willing to fall. Do not fear a wound. Wounds heal. Tear open your heart, examine the pain – because that’s what writing is all about. Now turn out your gut – because that’s where the truth is. That which is rigid is stagnant. Vulnerability allows creativity.
All together now: All fall down. Then get up and write your best. Smile for the camera, your knees won’t show.
Painting: Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, circa 1600, public domain