On Taking Risks
I was thinking about taking risks the past few days. I know someone who recently quit their job to try a different path — a thing I have done before — and I was telling them how there is always a down cycle before there is an up cycle. That anytime we make big shifts in our lives, it takes a while (don’t ask me how long a while is, you’ll know when it’s over) to settle into this new rhythm. It’s helpful to know why we’ve made the shift, although I recommend it being more than “just because.” The most important thing is to recognize that we’ll be in transition for a while, and we have to accept the struggles that come with that. This is an unsteady feeling, and that’s why it’s a risk. We could lose everything, but what’s harder in the moment is the feeling that we could lose everything. But of course, this makes us feel alive, too.
Last year I wrote about thirty thousand words of a new book. This year I realized that I had to stop where I was at that moment and write a new beginning of the book. Everything I had written was fine, just fine. I am a perfectly competent sentence writer every day of the week, so what was on the page was adequate. And I had momentum. I knew where I wanted the story to go. I was afraid to take a break from that momentum – what if I didn’t get it back? But my gut told me that I needed to walk back to the beginning of the story and take a look at the future as it spread out from there. Look at the source of the pain, I thought, and track the way it radiates.
Anytime we shift directions in our writing, it feels tricky. Anytime we cut gigantic blocks of text, it seems like we could be making the biggest mistakes of our lives. Anytime we realize there’s a different protagonist than we thought in the first place? That is an “oh shit what if this doesn’t work” state of mind. Anytime we take on material or structure or a form or a genre that is different to what we have worked with in the past, it feels like a huge fucking risk.
A friend of mine wrote a novel in first person, then revised and made the entire book close third with multiple perspectives, then went back again and revised it all in first person. An incredible risk each time. She spent so much energy. The risk of energy. What if we run out of it? (But we won’t.) It must have felt terrifying.
Do we worry we’re messing up our books/careers/lives each time we do this kind of thing? Yes. It is both an answer and a crisis, to take these kinds of leaps with our work.
Anytime we write about a topic that makes us feel nervous, it is hard. Anytime we write from a place deep inside us that feels revolutionary. Anytime we write about something that feels intimate and personal. Anytime we write about something we think our parents wouldn’t approve of. Or our friends. Or our lovers. Or potential employers. Or people with power. Anytime we write about something that feels new or different or radical or lays our heart on a plate for any old stranger to feast upon.
Anytime we say to ourselves: You know what? I’m going to spend the next few years of my life trying to write a book, and I may never get that time back, but if I don’t try it, I’ll never know if I could do it or not.
Anyway, it’s spring here now. I somehow managed to finish hammering out the first fifty pages of the draft this week after many starts and stops this year, including launching a book. It’s so messy, this draft, but it’s not bad, and it’s necessary, I know it. It felt hard much of the time because I knew the new pages had to accomplish so much, and it had to do it efficiently, and if I didn’t keep a handle on it, it was going to swerve completely in another direction. I kept a tight grip on my risky maneuver. It ate my brain entirely. A downward slope before I rose again. Worth it.
I hope you all have a beautiful Sunday. It’s spring here, and the loquat tree is budding but not ripe yet. A little while longer and there will be sweet fruit everywhere.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere).