I am very familiar with the correlation between fear and writing. And I don’t mean writing horror stories (which I’m still not very good at, as per my last post). I mean the hugely courageous thing that we do every time we send our work into the world. We know that we’re inevitably going to face rejections and criticisms and even accusations, but the fear can also come with writing success, with people reading and reacting to our words.
I used to teach sessions on body language and I will always remember someone telling me, ‘fear and excitement are so closely linked in the way they impact your body, it can be hard to tell them apart.’ Yup. As you watch a story, and your name, whizz around the internet, it’s okay to be a little bit scared. I find I’m even more nervous when it’s a piece of creative non fiction (CNF) or anything that draws from personal experience. But, I still write these things, while being mindful of the following checklist.
1. Are you sure you want to go there? If you’re going to write about something personal, be aware that this could open up old wounds It could be a transformative, healing process, but it could also be a painful one. Before you start even thinking about writing a personal piece, be sure that you have thought about the impact it might have on you. I have experienced some difficulties in the past that I’m still not able to write about, whereas others have sufficient distance for me that I can approach them in fiction without becoming overwhelmed or upset.
2. Is it your story to tell? This is a tricky one. I was quite surprised to see this explicitly referred to in the guidelines for the new TSS creative non fiction call out, and I applaud them for raising this issue https://www.theshortstory.co.uk/cnf-submissions/
Kit de Waal also wrote a great piece about using other people’s stories, in the Irish Times, https://bit.ly/2z8zG1k You might well have stored up some fabulous and interesting ideas throughout your life, from family, from work, from observing those around you…but are you the right person to tell these stories? This is a thorny issue which has been much discussed in literary circles over the last year and one that I believe all writers need to think about carefully.
3. Are you happy with the market you are sending your work to? How will you respond to editorial suggestions on a personal piece? Will your work be treated with sensitivity? A friend of mine recently wrote a beautiful piece of CNF. During editorial discussions, the editor suggested a line be removed. However, this line was important to the writer. The writer felt somewhat pressurised and in the end withdrew the piece. Happily, it found a home elsewhere, with the important line retained.
4. Have you thought about the repercussions of your piece? Especially if it involves a sensitive or difficult subject matter. Other people might reach out to you for support – how are you going to handle that? You might cause upset in your close friends or family, are you okay with that? Your piece could trigger another person, is that something you feel okay about? You might be seen as a spokesperson for that particular issue when really all you wanted was to express yourself and then move on to the next piece. It’s a hard one, only you can weigh up the cost of publishing versus not publishing and make these decisions.
5. Do you realise that this could be permanent? Once a story fades into the background, after the initial reading and promotion, it doesn’t just vanish forever. Anyone who looks you up online may come across that story. There are markets that will allow you to withdraw, but I’m sure there are markets that may not, or may close down, or may not respond to emails. Your online presence is pretty much permanent so keep that in mind.
I’m aware that this all sounds rather scary and serious, but that is the point. It has taken me a good while and some difficult times to come to terms with my own fears about writing. In the past I have asked for pieces to be removed from online, I have submitted pieces and withdrawn them in a panic, but I don’t think I would do that now as I have considered all of the above and am comfortable with my own limits and expectations. I have emotional support around me and I have strategies for dealing with rejection, criticism, trolls and so on.
Also, crucially, I have found that my best writing comes when I put my heart and my self into the words. I wouldn’t want to lose this. I only do it in the first draft mind, I put all the emotions I want on the page and then I anonymise, change and edit until I am happy with the piece and nobody but me would know I was ever in it in the first place.
For inspiration about the kind of work I’ve discussed today, here are some pieces that have really stayed with me recently. Honestly, I’m not certain if they should be classed as fiction that draws on personal experience or true CNF or essays or somewhere in the middle, I just know that when I read them they made me stop and think.
Only When We Want Them by Emily Harrison in Soft Cartel
‘Only When We Want Them’ by Emily Harrison
Deceitful by Maura Yzmore in Former Cactus
I Drink to Demolish Myself by Emily Reynolds in Medium (trigger warning for self harm) https://medium.com/s/story/i-drink-to-demolish-myself-60b77022117b
A final word – for all things CNF you should really sign up to The Real Story newsletter, it is full of examples, inspiration and opportunities. Find out more about them here https://therealstory.org/about/