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Risk In Writing

Damien G. Walter wrote this call-out post asking for suggestions of currently working writers who are bold, who experiment, and who risk themselves. Somebody help him out; I want to know too.

I’ve been thinking about risk in literature lately—mostly in the context of wanting not to retread smooth ground—but I run into the same wall each time: by what criteria should I measure risk? (For an example of what he means by “creative risk,” Damien cites Bradbury, a writer of whose work I am, on the whole, embarrassingly ignorant, although I’ve read a few of his stories.)

Does risk lie in the writer’s fear of reprisal? Does experimentation lie in simple controversy (talking about what a society has quietly agreed to ignore), or telling stories in untried forms, or telling stories from a new point of view (a person, perhaps, previously ignored in that writer’s culture), or setting a story in a new sort of place? The writer can play with any aspect of fiction; there are no rules if the result works, and no penalty besides wasted time if he fails.

Short stories are an excellent medium for experimentation: they pose comparatively low risk, in terms of time invested. Elizabeth Bear compared the short story to the club scene in music: both are comprised of “bubble and boil;” they’re a conversation, one story to another, and their virtue is immediate feedback. Short stories are where we spy out the new land.

And what are the stakes? Are we risking only readers’ disapproval? I don’t think it’s mostly cowardice that stymies exploration; it’s complacency, or calcified imaginations. (And too, not every writer is by necessity an explorer. Some are homesteaders, and their role is valuable as well.)

What I want, and what is most difficult for me, is to write fresh stories, honest ones, without softening or misdirecting my words. Paul Park apparently suffers from none of this difficulty, if judged by his excellent fiction, yet he said the following in an interview, as he discussed the evolution of his style:

… the hardest thing for me as a writer is to speak without irony, without the protection of being misunderstood. To say, “this is what I think is important,” or “this is what I think is true, or beautiful, or funny, or moving”—that is what is difficult for me.

I strive toward greater honesty in all things. But is this greater personal clarity and vulnerability the sort of uncommon boldness we’re striving for, or is that process of flaying the lying layers from the writer’s heart simply called “writing well?”

At the last, whether all my other questions are answered or not, I want to know: where is the unpeopled frontier? Because I want to spy out the new land.

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