“Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)” – Natalie Goldberg.
I took my first creative writing class in 1999, and my instructor, I think her name was Sonja, assigned us Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. For 90 minutes once a week, we’d sit in a circle of desks and do the prompts, the variations. We’d discuss the importance of free writing and writing practice. Another thing Sonja liked to go on about was going for the jugular, and, I’ll tell you I didn’t really get it. I mean, twenty year old me *thought* I got it. Who doesn’t think they know everything when they’re twenty and the whole world is in front of them? But the whole premise of how to you make a person feel sympathy, fear, grief, or anticipation for someone or someones who are, in effect, a highly developed set of imaginary friends, that was a big concept. One that I couldn’t do anything but fumble in the dark with.
I’m not sure how I didn’t grasp this concept, since it’s achingly clear to me now. Good writing comes from writing the things that scare you, the weird stuff, the stuff you think no one will ever read besides you. It’s about taking risks, and being bold. It’s about not shying away from the squick, in fact, charging into the squick and making it my own has been one the cooler things I’ve done lately.
I’ve had several moments in the current draft of my novel where I was like:
Am I taking this too far?
Is this really the path I want to go on, because that changes all the things.
Are you sure, Jessica?
Are you *sure* sure?
These voices took over. And in each instance of doubt I rewrote the scary bits. And then I rewrote them again, and again, and again, before realizing the places I took the biggest risks were also where my work shined the brightest. I suspect part of my hesitation was my old self consciousness rearing it’s ugly head.
It’s safe here in my adult life. No one tells me I don’t belong anymore because I don’t call attention to myself. Taking these risks with my work. Putting it out in the world for others to read. It’s like baring my throat. It’s like saying here are my soft vulnerable bits. It’s like showing everyone a piece of my soul. Like handing people ammunition. Being honest about my fears is an act of extreme vulnerability. And it’s *hard* to not listen to those voices. So very hard.
I call these voices doubt demons/squirrels/weasels/police. I use a lot of funny names in order to relegate them to my own personal brand of slightly off center metaphor. But, in all honesty, it’s putting a brave face on the fact that I’m still leasing headspace to my childhood bullies. Part of me is still listening to the kids who stole the Christpher Pike inspired novella I wrote in 8th grade. Kids who read it aloud while I was in the bathroom. Kids who laughed and quoted it back to me in the halls. Those guys got to see my squishy bits. They got to poke them. And they’re still with me. So when I talk about taking risks with my writing. When I talk about making myself, a grown ass woman, vulnerable, it’s super freaking scary. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve birthed babies, and gotten fired from jobs and had horrible visceral fallings out with people I love. None of those things scare me. I’ve done those before and gotten a whole drawer full of t shirts for my troubles. When was the last time I showed someone my soul?
But that’s what’s needed. That’s the spark that separates good writing from great. The willingness to take risks. To be vulnerable. To charge bravely into the unknown, throat bared. I know this. It comes from a deeper place than those whispery doubt voices telling me I’m neither good enough, smart enough nor likeable enough to do this thing. Those voices are loud, but this is louder.To fully get what I want means telling those voices to go orbit a black hole.To live the life I’ve imagined means I must bare myself. I must take risks. I’ve learned a great deal as I rewrite this book for the third time. I’ve learned that when I let go of my fear about what other people might think is when I do my best work. When I take those kinds of risks with my characters it makes me cry.This is a new and exciting thing,real tears for the really real suffering I’ve rendered in my imaginary friends’ lives. I’m heading into the last third of this book.This book that has taken over a year of my life to get right. I can feel the tears coming and it’s okay. It’s good. Crying is okay. Being scared is okay. Taking risks is okay. Going for the jugular means me charging forth and not fighting to the death, but to the pain. If writing is an act of bravery, and it must be or it wouldn’t scare me so much, this is me taking off my armor and walking out into the field, squishy bits exposed, waiting to see what happens next. Should be fun.