Writing Fearlessly: An Exercise in Letting Go

Jin Jinto via Compfight

Years ago, a fellow writer described one of my stories as “polished.”

She meant this as a compliment of sorts. I’d labored over every word, after all, chiseling each sentence down to a sparkle.

But I couldn’t help feeling that, for all its polish, my story lacked emotional depth. By way of “polish” I had whitewashed all the painful stuff. Worse, I’d failed to move my readers.

Polished suggested mere style, the literary equivalent of “Look Ma, no hands!”

It’s one thing to be polished. Quite another to be raw and emotionally truthful.

Yes, we need narrative control; there is a difference between art and artless telling. But at the same time there needs to be a feeling of wild, unleashed abandon, like everything unfolding on the page is as complicated, teeming, and wayward as life.

My story was too tamed. Too stylized. Too polished.

In a word, safe.

Letting Go

In my early twenties, training as a dancer, I studied with a husband/wife team. She, a ballerina, danced with flawless precision. Yet, despite all her technical prowess, as in awe I stood of her virtuosity and control, whenever I watched her dance on stage or in the rehearsal studio, I had a flat reaction.

Her husband’s technique, while good, was no match for hers. Yet every time I watched him dance, he fascinated me. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He didn’t just dance with his body. He felt the music. He inhabited it. He let go, giving himself in a way his wife could not.

Sure she was the better technician. Her arabesques and pirouettes were perfection. But he connected to something deeper within himself. It didn’t matter that his body was denser, his leaps heavier, his grand battements a bit labored. He danced with raw emotion. There was a visceral energy behind his movements that trumped his wife’s technique.

Ideally we braid technique with emotion. But pyrotechnics are no match for what we generate from the heart, from what Robert Olen Butler calls the “white hot center” of you.

Be forewarned: when we write from our center, we’re putting ourselves on the line. We’re exposing our most vulnerable spaces. That’s scary. It’s easier to hide behind pretty, highly crafted sentences.

Craft is essential, of course. But that comes later, after you’ve gotten your raw material down.

Your raw material has to be just that. Raw. Uncensored. Passionate.

Write From The Heart

You can have all the writing technique in your writer’s toolbox. But all that craft will be useless if you’re not connecting to something deeper.

And oh, how we resist diving into the deep end.

Somewhere along the line, we buy into this idea that it’s not okay to experience so called “negative feelings.” Fear. Guilt. Humiliation. Pain. We push it all aside. It’s all too personal. All too shameful.

But what if we thought of our pain as simply part of being alive? After all, is joy the sole litmus of life well lived? I don’t think so. Feeling pain means you’re awake.

And all those things that make us feel alone and odd, and ashamed, and isolated, are the very things that connect us. They’re also the things that readers find most fascinating.

It takes courage to write from the heart. But if we don’t go there, if we put all our energy into spinning out gorgeous sentences, we’re like dancers who, despite impeccable skill, fail to move the audience.

The more vulnerable we allow ourselves to be on the page, the more universal we are.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said this to an aspiring story writer:

You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

So here’s an exercise to help you sell your emotions.

There’s no editing at this stage, just a courageous free fall. This is for your eyes only. So go as deep and wide as you want.

Write about something you haven’t been able to get over.

A memory. An event from your childhood, perhaps. It doesn’t have to be tragic or epic. It can be heartbreaking. Or heartbreakingly beautiful. A small moment. Or a major turning point. The death of a loved one. The birth of your child. The dissolution of your marriage. It could be a secret you’ve never shared with anyone.  Just pick one thing that burns in your memory. You know, the one that grabs you by the heart.

Free associate.  Don’t judge what comes up on the page. Don’t control it. Don’t worry about chronology, or even if scenes and fragments relate in any way.  Allow emotional significance to dictate what flows onto the page. Trust it.

Heads up.  You will probably resist this exercise. A lot. Stay with it. As they say, the only way out is through.

Keep writing.

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2 Responses to Writing Fearlessly: An Exercise in Letting Go
  1. Diane Watanabe

    Tried this exercise last night and allowed myself to put “pen to paper” (or fingers to keyboard) and acknowledged a “guilty pleasure”. It got me thinking and, wouldn’t you know it, a story emerged. Perhaps my character’s journey will reveal why I’m indulgent with this guilty pleasure.

    As always, thanks for the nudge in the creativity department.

  2. You’re welcome, Diane! This exercise alone can inspire an immense body of work, so get ready. Can’t wait to see what you create!
    Nanci recently posted..Writing Fearlessly: An Exercise in Letting GoMy Profile

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