For some reason, the idea of creative risk-taking keeps coming to mind today. I usually think about it when I hear Bohemian Rhapsody and remember what Queen’s agent said to the band (in the movie) when they wanted to record it as a single: “Opera? Six minutes long? No radio station will ever play it.” Undaunted, they did it anyway. How brave they were.
But what does taking risks look like in novel writing? How, and why, and in what form might it take? What does it even mean?
Before I was a writer, I always thought it was a silly notion. If I read that an author “took great risks” I’d have a good giggle. I’d think to myself, what—like with a pen and piece of paper? How risky could that be? It’s not like scaling the Empire State Building or skydiving or swimming with sharks. Where’s the danger?
Now that I’m doing the writing, yeah, I have to admit taking the path of least resistance feels a lot safer. When do I feel most brave? I gave that a thought after I read this piece in The Atlantic by Hannah Tinti, author of Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. It’s full of wisdom about process and goals and starting over and dark days. Hannah talks about how her most creative and daring writing came when she promised herself no one would ever read those pages she was working on. “I wrote with the idea that nobody was going to see the words.” That promise gave her freedom to take giant creative leaps.
“I tend to write at night. I think it gets back to that same word: stillness. The world starts to fall asleep. The emails stop coming in. The phone and texts go quiet. Even social media slows down. It’s almost like there’s more energy in the air for me to access. From 11 p.m. until 2 or 3 in the morning, that’s when I write my best stuff. You feel like you’re doing it in secret. That nobody is watching. All around you, people are dreaming.” Hannah Tinti, author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
One of my most favorite chapters of my newly finished book, MISTAKEN, is one that I wrote when I was at a writers conference in Martha’s Vineyard. During that week I had a plan to set my alarm extra early so I could exercise, eat, shower and write a couple of thousand words before 10am when the craft classes started. I thought it was a crazy goal, but there I was doing it everyday. I never do that ordinarily. But all that distance from home, in a place with people who were strangers to me, made me feel hidden. My work felt that way, too. I was removed from the typical pressures. I was far away and un-distractable. That’s how it felt, anyway. (Of course I still had wifi!) But writing in that tucked away place in the wee hours before the sun came up felt like a secret. A place I could write anything.