Guest Post, Robert Detman: The Real Risk is Writing

Robert Detman bio photoWriting anything worthwhile is an invitation to risk. Besides being largely subjective, risk is many faceted. Risk may be taking on the mantle of a writer, and foregoing a stable career. It can also be thought of as the effort you take to draw a reader in, or it may be what you are willing to do to your characters. Risk can also mean stretching oneself and tackling unfamiliar, outright uncomfortable, genres. But are any of these really risking all that much?

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2016, guest editor and inveterate birder Jonathan Franzen explains how the writers in the collection have risked in their essays, and that this became the basis for his selection. Franzen writes: “[…] The risk I feel most grateful to a writer for taking: shame. As Arthur Miller once said, ‘The best work that anybody ever writes is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.’ […] Your material feels too hot, too shameful, to even think about? Therefore you must write about it.” Risk is fundamental to the writing process.

The writer faces potential humiliation for putting their thought into words. I occasionally feel a jolt of anxiety when I think too deeply about what thoughts I’ve put into words, though over time I’ve developed a thick skin. Once I reveal myself on the page, I try to move on. I sometimes confront the anguish of letting work get published and then finding typos, but I’m more likely to embarrass myself by failing to catch a clunker of a sentence, and then hope it goes unnoticed. I am always grateful to editors who ask about my intent before committing my words to print.

A rush to publish has probably caused its share of shame for writers. The writer never knows how her work is going to be received, and this is always the hump to overcome in submitting work. A lot of writers probably see writing in general as risky–which might explain why many don’t write beyond the comfort of a familiar genre. Some writers won’t send their work out to the world, and though fear of rejection is the typical reason, it may be that they are afraid that what they’ve written will be misconstrued. Every time I send work out, I wonder, “Will these editors think I’m crazy?”

Writing is a private act that one makes public, which then becomes a transaction with possibly countless unknown readers. Having an opinion and crafting an argument could be seen as hazardous, particularly if you live under a repressive government. But for many of us, it simply means we invoke the ire of those who might disagree with us. The anonymity of the internet’s comment streams seems to have made this possibility rampant; otherwise, it is foolish to be overly concerned with the reactions of trolls. There is the danger of alienating someone by writing about them in a memoir, and revealing their secrets. And there is the possibility of offending someone by your subject matter and how you deal with it. This last item is a risk that the writer takes every day.

Recently, there has been a call for “trigger warnings” on some works of literature at college campuses, to warn unsuspecting readers of a potential post-traumatic stress disorder reaction. Seeing how literature has been around for hundreds of years without the equivalent of an FDA label, this notion of endangerment seems oddly concocted out of a hyper-aware desire to not offend. This political correctness on steroids subtly wants to imply that writing about an event is akin to a writer perpetrating it.

A misconception about writing–often by those who aren’t writers–is that the writer exposes herself with every utterance, revealing her darkest secrets. But rarely does this occur. On the other hand, many of the essays in the Best Of American Essays 2016 have the feel of voyeuristic confessions. One essayist, Katherine E. Standefer, in the essay, “In Praise of Contempt,” writes of sexual emancipation at the hands of a man she does not like. Laura Kipnis, in “Sexual Paranoia”, details her attempts to challenge college campus harassment policies. In Richard M. Lange’s “Of Human Carnage,” the writer explores his witnessing a suicide, and an unwillingness to become further involved in the investigation. Many of the essays have clever shock value. Still, having written, published and had their work selected for the Best Of American Essays, I wonder if these writers believe they have risked in the way Franzen sees it. Perhaps our sense of risk lessens in proportion to the publicity of our work.

Writing about an event in my past, I could put someone I once knew in a compromising situation, by naming them in relation to this event. This person, I could argue, might deserve the attention I give them; on the other hand, is it really my right to expose someone, even if I think they deserve it?

I recently wrote a memoir about a period in college when I experienced a harrowing bout of depression. I initially felt uneasy submitting this to journals, but perhaps my piece might offer solace to someone who has gone through something similar (though maybe it would only trigger PTSD). Time and distance from the material made it easier to write the essay, but I had to consider repercussions. Though I altered names to avoid implicating some acquaintances, the story is about my own battle, and I can bear whatever outcome it entails. Writing this piece was oddly cathartic, by the way–the thrill of the risk?–though it might have been less problematic to write it as fiction.

One person’s risk is another’s voyeurism, particularly if one seeks the attention. But to be a writer is to demand attention, and writing about oneself puts the writer in welcome company. Even at a reading where the audience laughs at an awkward passage possibly not intended for a laugh, at least the writer was heard (in lieu of being read). For the most part, the writing community is supportive–after all, we’ve all risked attempting to be writers.

Whatever writing project you take on, it is really only yourself you are imperiling, and at that, you may be the only one who perceives the risk. Maybe the most valid claim is that, if you believe your writing is taking a risk, then it probably is. Ultimately, taking a risk in writing is what makes it worth the effort.

Guest Post, Robert Detman: From Journal into Blog: Seven Years of Writing about Writing

JournalTo admit to keeping a journal might smack of a twee sensibility, but I’ve kept one for years, and find them rather to be a necessity. These journals have long given way from their original, possibly naval gazing intent, which was to chronicle the days, and have become more useful for literary digressions, and a regular and deliberate writing about writing.

After the intense work of my MFA in 2006, I was writing a lot about process in my journal. While pursuing my degree I was writing in multiple directions creatively, and these experiments led to inquiries and writings on craft. Perhaps because in its normal guise this writing is known as criticism, it has a negative connotation for creative writers. But writing about writing seems to jiggle synapses, opening up my creativity. The beauty of writing about process is that the writing itself is often the process.

A journal, it seems, is the perfect vehicle for exploring topics in a blog. Thus, I naturally turned to writing a blog.

I’ve now written my blog for the last seven years–eleven years, if you count the one that preceded it but which I quit a few years in to go to grad school–and I’ve kept journals for much longer than that. In that time, I’ve written over 100 blog posts, most having to do with some aspect of writing and craft. Much like the critical work of my MFA, writing my blog has kept me within arm’s reach of that academic world–or at least, feeling as if I am still in the conversation.

During the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this year, Charles Baxter led a panel, “The Art of the Art of Writing,” for a discussion based on his Graywolf Press series, and it was the first seminar where I found myself writing down much of what was said. As Baxter said, “Criticism is/can be, an art.” To further make this type of writing palatable, Stacey D’Erasmo, one of the panelists, offered, “Criticism is thought, not judgment.” I was also pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t a jam packed seminar–it was late afternoon when blood sugar levels drop–which gave me solace in that it’s one area where I don’t have to feel competitive. Writing fiction, sometimes, can feel like a competition; whereas writing criticism can be an opportunity to slow down, and to ruminate.

Maintaining a blog about writing is a great habit for writing fiction no less, and I can’t complain about writer’s block; I simply have to find the time to put in some writing, and invariably the ideas begin to flow. I actually don’t believe in writer’s block; Flaubert’s marinating is the occasion for me to write something different.

It may at first seem an odd preoccupation for a self described fiction writer to always return to writing about writing. But as I also review books, which is another form of writing about writing, the end result is a deeper appreciation and understanding–and excitement about–the process of writing. Blog writing occupies the logical part of my brain, leaving the dreamy and surreal side to flourish for my fiction.

Aware of the social network savvy-ness of blog culture, I have infrequently written a blog post hoping to garner hits. I long ago gave up trying to second guess that algorithm and instead have focused on pieces that have interested me, mainly. It’s a surprise usually to see which posts get the most hits. I would be curious to discover the site linked to my piece about short story openings–my single most read post.

I also, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, blog at a snail’s pace. I’ve never seen my blog merely as a place to post bite-sized morsels every week, though expediency has led me to these occasionally. If anything, the blog has become a practice for writing longer pieces. I’ve written a few posts that cracked 2000 words, but for the most part I’ve managed to keep them within 1000 words. I’m sure every writer has their sweet spot in a blog post, and I find 1000 words to be the perfect capsule for many of the topics I’ve written on–it almost subconsciously works out this way. Of course, these topics can be explored in longer essays, but the blog has an immediacy that lends itself to trying a subject out. I’m especially fond of E. M. Forster’s statement, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

There’s no shortage of topics to consider, either, with the irreversible and remarkable changes in publishing over the past decade, or wide-ranging discussions of industry trends, or reviewing un-put-downable fiction. There are a number of think piece type blogs which have been resources for me, and have been models for posts I might write. The more involved with literary matters the better. (The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tim Parks’s blog at the New York Review of Books, The Smart Set, and Arts and Letters Daily are several I check regularly.) In fact, when I first began my blog, I was always surprised–and pleased–to find blogs with a similar sensibility. I couldn’t imagine this bounty if the internet didn’t exist.

In reading other writer’s blogs, I have discovered a diasporic community. So I have reached out–and been reached out to–by a number of interesting bloggers, who are all fascinating to me in their unique approaches to the medium (So many have come and gone over the years, I resist naming any here). This has led to requests for guest blog postings, and one for a serial interview when I published my novel last autumn. Though I may never meet these fellow bloggers in person, it’s been great to know we are connected in a kindred medium and subject.

Finally, one of the great rewards of this practice is that it has given me a log of my thinking over the years, a timeline in a body of work that parallels my creative output, since I’ve also been publishing fiction and reviews regularly when I can. It’s surprising to look back over the years and re-read a piece I wrote about daily writing habits, or a deconstruction on David Shields’s death warrant for the novel, or an essay attempting to describe Gary Lutz’s sentences. Having become something more than the sum of its parts, I often think that my blog is a book. One day it may very well become that.

Robert Detman’s website and blog