The January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers magazine features a stimulating essay by author and writing instructor Tom Spanbauer called “Dangerous Writing: Go to Your Battlefield.”

“To write dangerous is to go to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore,” Spanbauer writes. “Parts that are silent, and heavy. Taboo. Things that won’t leave us alone.”

Spanbauer then delivers a plea for writers to be vulnerable and raw. Abandon a third-person, omniscient narrator in favor of a breathing, bleeding first-person narrator. Let the narrator have a personality, Spanbauer insists. He goes on to list other values of Writing Dangerously: creating voice, taking a journey inward, make meaning with your writing, and close scrutiny of characters’ body/appearance.

I read all this as a call to action; this article spiked a creative fit in me.

Just the month before I’d gotten discouraged all over again. I had read a published author’s insistence on an opposite approach to fiction. (I’ll just call it “Safe Writing” here.)

Obviously, it is NOT good writing practice to tell my own life story and just change a couple of names or locations, then call it fiction. Fiction is so much stranger to write than that. I concede that when I write fiction I draw from things that happened to me as often as things that didn’t. Maybe I imagine things that happened to a friend, or almost could have happened but didn’t. Or things I saw on TV, or overheard at a café, or one million other possibilities.

Still, a writer might let a real-life experience dissolve into a fictitious one (by introducing other perspectives and truly inhabiting a made-up character) and there may be a topic or theme that continues to intimidate.

And so, Safe Writing thinking suggests: Just don’t go there. Place characters in situations without that much baggage for the writer.

It’s just a fact of writing that writers sometimes (often) abandon fiction projects because they preserve or rehash too many true-to-life traumas.

I have a novel like this. I have 35,000 words and I know where it’s going—to a dark and disappointing place. I’ve been in that place, and I feel confident I could take character there and out again. I could write this and make it out alive.

Then every time I think about this project and am about to open the Word file… I avoid the actual work. I don’t want to remember my most desperate moments. Yeah, I survived them, and I think it would do me good to write about other women surviving routine yet random violence, romantic relationships with addicts, dropping out of university due to lack of money, eating out of garbage cans, giving up goals, feeling lost, and so on.

But that Word file. I can’t do it! Why should I ruin my day—my safe, productive, healthy day—by revisiting these past aches?

To be clear: In my novel, the lead character is not me. But I have put a lot of myself into her. And I don’t want her to take me back to depression and shattered dreams—at least not often enough to really hone and refine a novel.

There it is. I have a five-year-old near-novel that still feels too close.

Safe Writing says: don’t use fiction as your therapy. Keep a sporting distance between your characters your life story.

I understand that it may be quicker and result in fewer tears if I were to write about characters I felt no connection with. I could invent a whole world and keep a clinical distance from the people in it.

I just cannot imagine sinking the time, effort or energy into fiction where I didn’t care. Maybe my fiction should always rankle me. Maybe the more unsettling it is, the better it is.

And maybe my scars have gotten a little thicker. Five years hasn’t been quite enough to finish this project. It doesn’t mean I never will, and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have made the attempt in the first place.

I can still revisit (reopen?) a wound to write about it. When and if I do, I will write this novel Dangerously.


eppingerLaura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.

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