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.