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Friday, February 25, 2005


true words vs. safe

“The farther writing strays from its deepest sources, the more sterile it becomes. Words skimmed from the surface grow tiresome. Subliminally the reader senses that the writer isn’t saying what he most wants to say. He’s protecting himself; being prudent. Writers realize this more consciously. One of the worst things they can say about a colleague is that he played it safe." ~ Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write

I don't know about the rest of you, but the last words I want others to use when describing my writing are "sterile," "tiresome," and "prudent." I'd rather hear that my writing is gritty, or invigorating, or, perhaps best of all--risky.

But writing isn't risky if something isn't on the line. And most of us don't like offering body parts on the altar. Most of us prefer to write while wearing head gear and shoulder pads and lots of padding over the heart. That way, no one (meaning us) gets hurt.

What are the risks of writing true words? Here's a partial list:
--We might reveal too much of ourselves
--Our attempts at being "fresh and new" might draw ridicule
--Strongly expressed opinions might bring an antagonistic response
--What we expose about ourselves might alienate our readers

No one willingly sets out to expose their tender parts or draw scorn from complete strangers. But if you don't take a chance, if you don't grit your teeth and set your jaw and open that vein, your writing will forever be sterile and tiresome and prudent ... and bland.

I settled for bland in a chapter of my first book--but only in the first draft. The next day, when I went back and checked the chapter, my words were so pleasantly vanilla that I made myself sick.

I was trying to describe the apprehension I felt when my seminary-student husband came home and announced he'd been asked to pastor in a retirement home. I didn't save my exact words--why would I?--but I remember I wrote something very, very safe; something like:

Even though I believed God had called my husband to minister in the retirement center, I didn’t want to have to go with him. I preferred that he went alone. As a child, I’d gone to nursing homes frequently with my grandmother, and the memories were unpleasant. Everything about those places frightened me.

Yawn-worthy, isn't it? But it was prudent. When you skim like that, you keep your readers a nice, safe distance away. (Sometimes they return the favor and keep a nice, safe distance away from your book.) The way I wrote that first draft, no one would ever know my real memories and my true fears. No one could get offended at my description of the nursing homes of my past; no one could think me horrible for noticing details that polite people would ignore.

But I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave that passage in my book. I had clear memories in my mind and knew my readers deserved to know the truth about those memories. So this is what I wrote instead:

Bethany Home had a woman with long silver hair who always sat in the same chair near the front door, holding a box of tissues and cleaning a section of the adjacent wall. There were no smudges on that wall, but she scrubbed them anyway.

On other Saturdays our destination was the Josephine Home, or “Josie,” as my grandmother called it. Crazy Bill lived there. He was a diabetic man in a rusty wheelchair who thought I was his little sister. He’d see me coming from the top of the ramp, where he perched most afternoons to watch the goings-on up and down the connecting hallways.

“Bettina!” he’d call, latching eyes with mine. “Come and play with me, Bettina!”

I’d clutch Grandma’s hand tightly as our footsteps crossed the distance between us and the wheelchair.

Grandma would pat his shoulder and greet him cheerfully. “Gorgeous day, isn’t it, Bill?”

Crazy Bill, I’d correct her silently. He scared the life out of me. His legs were gone, but his arms were strong. He pulled himself along the rail that threaded the walls from one end of the nursing home to the other, back and forth, never seeming to tire. Whenever he paused in his travels, he’d pluck at the front of his bathrobe with nails that were long, chipped, and yellowed—trying, like the silver-haired woman at Bethany, to remove something that wasn’t there. I would stare at his hands with a mixture of fascination and dread, fearing that one day those hands might clutch my arm and pull me into his embrace.

No matter how kind Grandma was, Bill found a way to yell at her. I didn’t understand how she kept it up.

“Your blanket slipped a bit. Can I straighten it for you, Bill?”

He’d scowl and begin barking in that raspy voice. “I’ll do it myself! Let me do it myself!”

Grandma just kept smiling, but I shrank from his voice.

She tried to help me understand. “People don’t like to lose control, honey. That’s all it is.”

Every once in awhile, she’d tell me Bill’s story in an effort to alleviate my fear. “He was in the war, you know. I’ve seen pictures of Bill in his uniform. He was quite handsome. It’s a shame his mind gave out on him.”

It didn’t help. No stories about the war could cover the aroma of urine and pain and fear that permeated the corridors of that nursing home and all the others we visited. We’d step through those doorways into a world of haunted eyes and shrieks and grimaces. And the whole thing terrified me.*


I didn't want my readers to hate me, but neither did I want to bore them to sleep. I was willing to risk the former to prevent the latter.

The next time you sit down to write, take a hard look at your work-in-progress and see if you can spot tiny pieces of your heart interspersed between the words. If the work is pristine, sweet and tidy--I challenge you to try again. Your readers deserve better ... don't you think?

*Excerpted from A Whisper in Winter: Stories of Hearing God’s Voice in Every Season of Life, Shannon Woodward (New Hope Publishers, October 2004).

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4 Comment:

At 2/26/2005 10:07 AM, Blogger HerWryness had this to say ...

Shannon -
You do it so well.

 
At 2/26/2005 1:00 PM, Blogger Teresa had this to say ...

Hi, Shannon. Thanks for your comment on my blog -- your words brought tears to my eyes.

And your words on this blog, taken from your book, painted an incredible picture in my mind. I remember well visiting nursing homes when I was little and being so terrified and repulsed. And ashamed of both feelings. You're a great writer. You've certainly inspired me!

My husband was in your city last October for a Southern Baptist convention-- he said it was beautiful. It's our goal to go together someday.

Have a great day!
Teresa

 
At 2/26/2005 3:07 PM, Blogger Donna J. Shepherd had this to say ...

Shannon, your descriptions are wonderful. I can see both of those characters in their frailty trying to hang onto tasks that will make their lives meaningful. How sad, but common. My mom likes the nursing home ministry, and I believe it takes a heart capable of caring deeply to take that ministry on - something your husband must share.

I found your blog through your into on TWV, and share your addiction! :) Thanks for the good read. - Donna

 
At 3/01/2005 10:08 AM, Blogger Lori Seaborg had this to say ...

Shannon, It's so scary to write like that, but you're right -- it makes for great reading!

 

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