Koalas, Blowback and Ick Factor: Finding Ways to Write From the Heart
By Chris Abouzeid
At a reading many years ago, Tobias Wolff (award winning author of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and This Boy’s Life) talked about the fear factor in writing. Good writing, he said, the best writing, should make the author nervous. Actually, he didn’t use the word nervous. He said “scared”—as in, “Do I really want to know this about myself? Do I want the world to know this about me? Oh my god, is it too late to buy up all the copies and burn them?!”
As an example, he cited a story he’d written recently, in which the main character, a father, discovers he hates his children. I don’t remember the circumstances of this discovery, but I remember Wolff describing how hard it was for him to write the scene, that in the process of uncovering his character’s hatred for his children, he had had to confront the same feelings in himself. He thought of himself as a moral, loving, caring father who would give his life for his children. And yet, he hated them. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But sometimes. It unnerved him.
Now, with all due apologies to Tobias Wolff, I didn’t see anything monumental or horrifying in this discovery. Based on an informal sampling of conversations on playgrounds and in coffee shops, most parents seem to hate their children at some point. A lot of parenting humor, in fact, revolves around the tyrannical, exhausting and parasitic nature of kids and how much easier everything would be if we could just treat them as pets or plants or appliances we bought on a whim and now are ready to return. It’s gallows humor, meant to express what is most painful—the very real resentment and exhaustion parents feel—in a way that both releases the tension and emphasizes the momentary nature of it. But it’s also true: Sometimes—like it or not—we wish those kids weren’t there.
Even if I didn’t share Wolff’s great revelation about parental ambivalence, though, the discussion rooted deep inside of me. For one thing, he had offered a simple, elegant rule of thumb for anyone hoping to write serious fiction: If you are comfortable with what you’re exploring, then you’re not exploring. You’re just taking a walk around the block.
For another, he had inadvertently demonstrated how tricky these kinds of explorations can be. We all have our high crimes and misdemeanors. We all have aspects of ourselves, our lives, our actions, that we would just as soon not face, secrets we would die of shame or embarrassment to have revealed. And, of course, we all have our passions and point-of-views, our wishes and our prejudices. This is the wide territory we’re supposed to explore. But, as my reaction to his discovery showed, what scares one author may seem like a matter of course to another. So even what constitutes “exploring” isn’t as clear as it should be.
Here are a few of the issues that come up every time I try to invest myself more fully in my writing, take more risks, do more than just walk around the block:
1. Honesty vs. the Ick Factor – At what point does my writing go beyond honesty and fall into ick territory? How much can an author reveal about himself/herself without losing the reader? David Shields once gave a reading at Bread Loaf in which he discussed this very question—why there is this invisible line and what happens when we cross it. It was a brilliant reading, but as his work was very autobiographical, the mood slowly shifted from quiet admiration to awkward silence as the personal details grew too much for the audience.
2. The Koala Problem – Real koalas are smelly, bug-ridden, drugged out beasts with claws long enough to pull your liver out. Doing a Melville on them (i.e. describing the inside of their skulls, reproductive organs, etc.) may give the most honest picture, but it’s not going to help that story about a girl in the Australian outback adopting a koala as a pet. The same goes for people. So if I want to explore the complexities of the human heart, how do I do it without making every character seem poisonous, doomed or repellent? If my characters don’t scare me (and everyone else), am I just “taking a walk around the block?”
3. The Blowback – I want to write a book about the sufferings of a German woman at the hands of an SS officer in World War II. Will people think I’m a Nazi sympathizer? I want to write about a pedophilic manny who lusts after the girl in his charge. Will it make everyone wonder if I’m a closet pedophile? Wait! What if I am a closet pedophile? Why else would I want to write something like that? Living in the age of kitchen psycho-analysis makes it hard to think of risky stories, risky themes and characters, without immediately wondering what they say about you, and what others will say about you.
4. Personal vs. Universal – However many risks I take, however much of myself I pour into a story, there’s no guarantee it will speak to other people. What if my experience is unique to me? What if no one else shares the same experiences, the same feelings? There is no worse feeling than finding out you’re the only one who loves your character, the only person who finds the story compelling, the only person who’s ever felt they way you feel.
What about you? How do you feel about taking risks, writing about things that scare you? Have you ever been surprised that something you thought was unique only to you reverberated with many other people? Or maybe didn’t?
Chris Abouzeid is the author of the Young Adult novel, Anatopsis. His short stories, poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, Agni Magazine, The Literary Review, Epoch, Southern Review, New England Review, Other Voices, and Literal Latté. His awards include grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the St. Botolph’s Club Foundation, and the Somerville Arts Council, and Honorable Mentions from the Pushcart Prize and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.