The Heart of the Writer
I’ve often thought the single greatest obstacle that prevents people from sharing their writing is fear. The basic fear of how your words will be received by the reader. The wider your readership, the greater the fear. It can be paralyzing, and is often the root cause of so many unfinished novels, or completed works that gather dust in a drawer because the notion of putting them on public display is simply too daunting.
Sometimes I envy writers who only keep a journal or a diary that nobody else will read. They can transfer their thoughts onto paper and not have to worry about how those feelings and phrases will be judged. But for those of us who are trying to write for the masses, it’s a genuine concern. When you write, even if it’s pure fiction, it’s still very much a reflection of how you view the world and what you deem to be important and meaningful. What if nobody cares how you see the world? I imagine that nagging sense of dread even creeps into the minds of some of my favorite modern writers like John Grisham and Ken Follett. I know it did even for literary geniuses like Ernest Hemingway. I imagine even Shakespeare had a few jitters on opening night.
Fear is a recurring theme in some of the characters I’ve created. In The Road to Devotion, Sarah Talton’s life is rife with fear. Fear of what’s going to happen to the South as sabers rattle, fear of what’s going to happen to the family homestead, fear of how she’ll take care of her younger sister. Sarah is even fearful of horses, which can be a serious drawback for someone trying to operate a small farm. In When the Ravens Die, Malcolm Bride harbors fear of what he might learn about his British ancestry and down what roads that knowledge will lead him. But in both cases, the characters work to overcome their deepest fears to get to a higher truth. That is what the writer must do… keep pecking away at those fears as they unveil their precious words to the world. I have immense admiration for authors like Pat Conroy and Elizabeth Gilbert who express themselves unblinkingly, bravely and honestly sharing their heartfelt poetry and prose without regard for how the critics will respond.
I have some of those worries this week as my new novel, The Sea is Silent, goes to press. How will the readers react? How will the reviews be? I do my best to convince myself that as long as I’m satisfied that what I put down on paper is what I intended to say, then I can’t worry about the rest. Honestly though, easier said than done. I have that same concern with the Christmas musical I have premiering on November 30th at Theatre Alliance in Winston-Salem. Theatre Alliance always does an amazing job with their productions, but as the playwright, I worry if I’ve given them enough good grapes to make fine wine. We shall see on opening night!
Some of my worries were assuaged this week by an unlikely source. My next manuscript, Mayor Molly, is a middle-grade novel for young readers. As a work in progress, I gave an early draft to a bright young girl in my church to read and help provide me with some feedback from my target audience. Her mother let me know that her daughter loved it, which makes the heart of the writer soar. (She also said her daughter had some notes, so there’s work left to do!)
My Journalism professor at Wake Forest, Bynum Shaw, gave me the best advice I’ve ever received in the arena of authorship. He said simply: a writer writes. I took that to mean that if you have the heart of a storyteller, then you have no choice in your life but to put pen to paper and express those thoughts. That is truly what will make you happy, and you just can’t worry about the rest.