The Risk-Taking Writer is the Successful Writer
By Susan Tepper
Years ago, maybe fifteen, or more, at a writing workshop in NYC, a guest editor from The New Yorker made the following statement. She said: I read the first line. If I like it, I read the second line. And, so on.
Her statement shook my world.
I had been under the impression a story or book could take its sweet ole time gathering momentum. That the writer had lots of time and space to develop the piece. I had heard it called “set-up.” Well, forget that. And, now even more so. In these times of the fast read, flash, micro-fiction, shorter novels, Kindles and Nooks and vastly reduced attention spans, the writer has to get it onto the page fast. And by that I don’t mean it has to be written fast. We don’t need to get writer’s cramp. But we have to grab fast. Grab their attention and take off from there. Like a jet moving at top take-off speed. That jet lazes along, it won’t make lift off. And nobody wants to crash land in the weeds.
Now this doesn’t mean that the story can’t have the most gentle, bucolic, softly sensual opening that’s ever been written. Of course it can. But it must also grab hard and fast. So fast the reader gets knocked senseless. I am talking Risk here.
That love affair on the page that opens the story— needs to startle, entice, engage, titillate or tell us something we don’t know. Or don’t want to know. But risk is key. As a writer, editor, and writing teacher I have succeeded at some stories and failed at others. The ones that succeed are ones where I have taken a risk, whereas the others are just ordinary.
As an editor, I sometimes get submissions that are so well crafted I sit back in my chair floored by that writer’s skill. But often in all that gorgeous prose nothing is happening in the story. All those beautiful sentences but where is the risk factor? Where is the danger? Why aren’t the hairs standing up on the back of my neck? It can be risky making a cup of tea on the page or it can be very boring. It can be risky petting a dog or can put the reader to sleep. That is entirely up to the writer.
How the writer views things, the world, and is able to translate those views into spectacular prose that will remain in the reader’s mind, or unconscious mind. We all know those kinds of stories. They come back to us at odd times. Often while we’re doing our own writing. A sentence, a scene, characters, weather, a tree, a mood will pass over and we will reflect on it a moment. Nobody will ever say risk is easy. I don’t think it’s remotely easy. But I definitely know it can be done. I’ve seen it happen. And once we take on risk, we can’t go back to the old way.
I once began a story called Deer. It was about two young kids, a boy and girl, under driving age, who were driving recklessly in the boy’s father’s convertible. They were searching for deer along a winding reservoir road. It was something bored kids might do. This story is set during the Vietnam war years, a risky time in history. And because I write spontaneously, never plotting my work, I was typing along when suddenly a line shot out across the page. A line of dialogue that really threw me. I sat back in my chair thinking: I can’t possibly keep those words in, they’re too disgusting. Then I left them in the story. Because they were the character’s words, not mine. I was deep into these characters and this risky dialogue just came flying out.
The result of taking that risk speaks volumes for risk. The story was published in a top tier literary magazine. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for National Public Radio Selected Shorts series. It went on to be performed as a theatre piece at Inter/Act Theatre in Philadelphia. It has been anthologized several times. And it ultimately became the title story of my first collection Deer & Other Stories.
If I had chickened-out and pulled that line of dialogue, the story would have taken a different turn. By keeping it in, the story became violent in a way that mirrored the climate of our country during the Vietnam era. It quite literally broke the story loose. People who have never written a word of fiction in their lives but have the deepest desire to write stories have come to my workshops. OK, I think as a teacher: here we go. I let them loose. Let them know they are in the safest space possible. Nobody will judge them. They can’t fail, it’s impossible to fail. And as writers on our own, we need to know this too.
The ones who stay the course, they don’t fail. The ones who are afraid leave pretty quickly. The ones who want to cheat the process, they leave, too. Because we can’t get away with cheating the process. It’s bigger than all of us combined. Trying to cheat the process only cheats us out of what could be spectacular.
I think all writers should have one t-shirt that says Take The Risk. I’ve heard people say writing has changed their lives forever. I believe that. It changed mine in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine. Because the moment I let risk in, the world became a very easy place to navigate. People who are impossible became easier to deal with. Things began to land at my feet (door, mailbox).
This sounds somewhat corny and solipsistic but it’s not. It’s just that when we use risk at the most optimum level in our writing, it filters into all else. Then the real world seems like child’s play. Embrace risk. Eat your meals with it, takes walks with risk, take risk to bed. It will become your greatest friend and ally.
Susan Tepper is co-author of the new novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G, the collection Deer & Other Stories, and the poetry chapbook Blue Edge. She writes a bi-monthly interview column called Monday Chat on Fictionaut. More about Susan Tepper at www.susantepper.com.