Writing Tip 101: Getting out of your comfort zone
I’ve been awake for hours, curled on a chair in the living room, watching the Christmas tree lights blink and fade like sleepy eyes in a cartoon forest. It isn’t always easy to know where the insomnia comes from—could be any number of things at the moment, from bills overdue to the friend who got fired at my day job. Could be the synopsis I’m writing, or this essay, or the fact that my husband has finished my book, the first of my writing he’s ever read, and hasn’t said a word except to express surprise that it will be soon found in libraries. “I didn’t think libraries carried books like that. It seems a little…”He was at a loss for words, so tonight I’ve supplied a few of my own. A little rough, maybe? A little dirty? Lurid, disturbing, prurient, pornographic? Though we’re calling Alice Close Your Eyes psychological suspense—and I think that’s the right descriptor—the fact is that my books are riddled with graphic sex scenes, and they are not at all safe for work. Or bookshelves, perhaps. For years I’ve kept my stories hidden in drawers and tucked away in the encrypted recesses of my computer’s hard drive, and I’ve avoided using my pen name in polite conversation. I’ve built a separate persona for my writing, which gives me the mental space to create the sort of thing that might not reflect well on me as a wife, a mother, an employee, and a friend. All writing exposes the author to some extent, so I know I’m not alone in cringing at the naked-on-the-street aspect of publication. Memoirists have it especially tough, surrounded as they are by the objects of their page-bound musings; I can think of nothing more unnerving than having to defend your opinions to the people who inspired them.Writing about sex is fraught in its own way. Readers want to know what part of the story is autobiographical; they want to put a face on the person who came up with these dark and unsettling characters. They might look at me sideways and decide I’m a bit of a freak, or (worse?) so painfully mouse-like and ordinary that they’d rather retain their mental image of me in latex and five-inch heels, cracking the whip beside my office chair.
And hey, I get it. I’m a reader first, and I’ll admit to a happy little shiver when I first saw a picture of Stephen King. You kind of want that mental image to match the reality, but it rarely does. We writers are most ourselves when divorced from our physicality, when we can thrust our personalities onto the page without having to deal with the obstructions of our saggy posture and thrift-store wardrobe, our gnawed fingernails, frizzy hair, dandruff—or in my case, tortoiseshell glasses and a voice more Betty Boop than Jessica Rabbit.
In writing, only your mind and spirit are on display, and those can be beautiful in spite of the size of your ass. They can also be more than a little disturbing.
I suppose that’s what my husband and family are experiencing. They’re getting a glimpse of an unknown mind behind a familiar face; they’re seeing for the first time that the person who shares their lives and home is not the person they thought they knew. Maybe they don’t like this new chick, or her invisible friends, or the fact that she’s filled a book not only with C-bombs and filthy language, but with violence, mental illness, and the kind of erotic descriptions that would stop the conversation cold around a Thanksgiving table.
It’s hard to reconcile that aspect of my character with the person they need me to be. I have come to see the two halves of myself as moving on parallel tracks, but with publication, those pathways have begun to rub together and cross. I can’t keep them separate anymore. Like all writers who see their work become public, I’ll have to accept this revelation of my private self to the wider world. I’ll have to become one with my opinion.
Perhaps that’s the true gift of publication. It forces you to own your full personality, with all its darkness and flaws, put your feet in your shoes and keep walking. Not all readers are going to like what they see when you show them what you’ve got, but being likable is not always the point. Sometimes it matters more to indicate a void you’ve perceived and lend your voice to fill it, whether that space is inside yourself or out. That’s what writing is, in the end: a shout into the stillness, a footstep ringing in an empty room, a tumble of words pouring through the secret chambers of our minds.
Some of us are driven to go there, to scream into the mouth of a cave. We just can’t bear the vacancy.