j’s Journey: Writing brave

By Judy Clement Wall

I recently read Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, a book I absolutely loved for its determination to look squarely at the wreckage of a truly broken heart and not make it pretty or poetic or simple.

Here is the opening sentence:

The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless, tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.

You know one thing for certain after an opening like that, this won’t be an easy or forgettable book. It’s about love and truth and pain and staggering human frailty; if you keep reading, you can expect to be altered.

In reviews and interviews, Yuknavitch has been called an experimental writer, and she is, in the best way. She writes from the heart to the outer edges of our emotions. Her stories are raw and honest, her language at once fiercely naked and stunningly lyrical. She is a unique and fearless writer, which is not to say that she writes without fear. I can’t imagine you can write this close to the bone without fear, but she writes through it, reaches the other side of an intensely personal journey and offers up, in the wake of it all, a singular literary achievement.

Reading The Chronology of Water, I was instantly riveted, then shaken, then filled unexpectedly with hope and a very real reluctance to reach the end. It was an amazing book, but I’m not writing a review of Yuknavitch’s memoir. This post is about me, a writer reading a fearless work, feeling dazed and dazzled and, all the while, uncomfortably aware of my own writing, the risks I haven’t taken, the depths I haven’t plumbed.

They say (and they are right) that the best writers read. A lot. Most of the time, when I read an excellent book, it only makes me want to write more. I’m inspired by the gifted writers I read, but every now and then, a writer comes along who is so good, so different and challenging and precise and brave, I feel my own limitations. I think to myself, “This is so good. I could never write this.”

The truth is, I’m always surprised when I react like that, when the amazing work of a talented writer leaves me feeling inadequate instead of inspired. I don’t know why that happens, but I know that it shouldn’t. What I need to take away from Yuknavitch’s book is a determination to write braver, to explore my edges, to play with ideas and language and form because it’s fun, and because somewhere in all that freedom, I believe there is magic… and the stories only I can write.

What do you think? Do you ever feel intimidated by the writers you admire?  How easy is it for to explore your own edges, to try something new, to write brave?

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JUDY CLEMENT WALL is a freelance writer and Course Presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. Her short stories and personal essays have been published in numerous literary journals and on some very cool websites like The Rumpus, Used Furniture Review and Beyond The Margins. She recently finished her first novel, BEAUTIFUL LIVES, and here at FoW, she chronicles the ups and downs of writing for publication. You can read more of her series here. Judy blogs about life, love, writing and cheesecake at Zebra Sounds.

17 Responses to j’s Journey: Writing brave
  1. Estrella Azul
    October 25, 2011 | 4:56 AM

    As an emerging writer, for me it definitely isn’t easy to explore my own edges, to try something new, to write brave without the presence of fear and without second guessing myself at least half the time.
    Actually, among other writer friends’, your writing sometimes has me thinking “I could never write like this.”

    However, when I start writing something that’s been on my mind for a while, that’s been building up an enormous pressure and almost makes my heart explode – those are the posts, the letters, the poems and flashes which in turn touch my reader’s hearts.
    I’m currently working up the courage to finish a flash just like that. And I know I’ll have to work through the fear and sadness while finishing it. And I also know that my readers, you guys, will let me know if I’ve reached that place where to the outside eye it looks like I simply snapped my fingers and it was done without any fear, or second guessing.

    • j
      October 25, 2011 | 11:27 AM

      I suspect the stuff “that almost makes your heart explode” is universal which is why it resonates with your audience. I’ve found that too. I try to remember that truth when I’m nervous about submitting a piece or hitting “publish” on the blog.

      Good luck with the post that is gestating in you now. xo

      • Estrella Azul
        October 26, 2011 | 4:11 AM

        That really is a great universal truth to remember when we’re struggling through the fear.

        And thanks, j! xoxo

  2. Bell
    Twitter: StartYourNovel
    October 25, 2011 | 11:01 AM

    Everyone feels intimidated by the writers they admire — the trick (at least for me) is to recognize they, too, were haunted by self-doubt and they too looked up to their masters and trembled.

    Descartes, who gave us “I think, therefore I am,” one of the leading thinkers who helped define modernity, thought of himself as a pretty average individual, as someone of little talent and accomplishment. Yet he was an adviser to kings.

    I don’t know whether there are any writers on Pluto or Gliese 581d, so I’ll go out on a limb and say, all writers are human. Being human means experiencing doubt and frustration. Talent is not apportioned evenly; one has to accept that and move on.

    But talent without work is just potential. And work is the only way you can develop talent. One day you might find yourself rereading a book that rocked your world and realizing that you’ve outgrown it.

    • j
      October 25, 2011 | 11:24 AM

      Actually, I don’t always feel intimidated by the writers I admire. I usually feel inspired. They make me want to write more. It’s certain writers that make me feel this weird sense of my own limits, the degree to which I haven’t pushed myself.

      I agree that it’s less about talent than hard work. I just read about a study that found the most successful entrepreneurs and artists don’t have limiting ideas around talent, they believe in the constant growth that results from hard work.

      “Just write” is still the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

      • Bell
        Twitter: StartYourNovel
        October 26, 2011 | 7:29 AM

        “Intimidated” is too strong a word, perhaps. Maybe “awe(d)” is a better one.

        Who are the writers that make you feel that “weird sense of your own limits”? Mine are Gene Wolfe and Eça de Queirós (Portuguese, 19th-century, you probably haven’t heard of him) where prose is concerned, and Emily Dickinson/Wordsworth/Donne/Charles Baudelaire/Arthur Rimbaud for poetry. Incidentally, these are the people that made me want to write.

        • j
          October 26, 2011 | 3:46 PM

          I was going to say that for me it is often about nakedness, the fierce honesty with which writers like Lidia Yuknavitch attack their subjects.

          But that’s not always true. Michael Chabon is less fierce, but he’s insanely smart and precise. I have felt intimidated by him and David Foster Wallace for the same reason. Toni Morrison’s ability to describe horrifying events in language so lyrical it makes the horror worse amazes me. Aimee Bender’s imagination, Charles Baxter’s details, Jennifer Egan’s scope…

          You’re right though. Despite the awareness of my own limits, in the end, good writers make me want to write better.

  3. Tricia
    Twitter: Tricia_Sutton
    October 25, 2011 | 1:46 PM

    Not only do I, but I felt you wrote my thoughts (you do that sometimes. It’s scary). Most of the time reading inspires me. And as an added bonus, sometimes I read a crappy book and get even more inspired: “they can get published by turning in what looks like a first draft, so stop revising right into your 5th year and finish the thing already.”

    And then … then I read something like what you described and I think I don’t have what it takes, and I might as well give it up.

    Writing is such an emotional roller coaster. (reading is too, because I cried over that excerpt.)

    • j
      October 25, 2011 | 8:51 PM

      I know. I knew as soon as I read that sentence that the book would undo me. But sometimes… I just need to be undone.

      I agree with the you that says, “stop revising right into your 5th year and finish the thing already.” Only, you know, I’d say it sweeter than that. And give you a cookie.

  4. Boonies Chick
    Twitter: fearofwriting
    October 25, 2011 | 2:42 PM

    What an incredible opening for Yuknavitch’s book. And to know that it’s a memoir is even more shattering. I see why you called this post Writing Brave.

    Like you, most reading inspires me but I have occasions where I’m so in awe that it intimidates me as well. I can totally see why this book would have have that effect on you. Just that one paragraph alone is enough to see why. The writing is everything you described it as. I’m sure her book would have the same impact on me as a writer (that’s if I had the courage to read it. Having a daughter myself, even though she’s grown up with a child of her own now, makes it very scary for me to read memoirs – or even fiction – about tragedies happening to a beloved daughter).

    Your questions at the end were compelling and I’m going to think about them and maybe journal about it. Happily, the answer these days is that I’ve been doing that more and more: exploring the edges, trying new things, writing brave. And it’s been energizing my creativity in every area of what I’m doing. The romantic comedy I just finished taught me that you can go to the edges of your own stuff even with a story that’s meant to entertain and be funny.

    Your post has inspired me to go for it even more. Thanks for writing this!

    ~ Milli

    • j
      October 25, 2011 | 8:53 PM

      Good point! Everybody’s edges are different and sometimes writing brave means sitting our asses in our chairs and typing some words! 😉

  5. Kate Arms-Roberts
    October 25, 2011 | 8:02 PM

    I have been working on writing braver over the past year, but I am still awed at writers who so clearly plumb their depths for material to share with their readers.

    • j
      October 25, 2011 | 8:58 PM

      Me too. It wasn’t until I turned 40 that I stopped writing for my father – not literally, but as if he were reading over my shoulder. Talk about squashing the instinct to be wild or raw or daring or controversial! Still… I have depths yet to be plumbed, for sure.

  6. Where the love is… | Zebra Sounds
    October 27, 2011 | 3:03 AM

    […] FoW, I shared some thoughts on writing […]

  7. Giselle Ebilane
    March 24, 2012 | 6:35 PM

    your blog is really amazing……..

  8. Phyliss Ortmann
    March 24, 2012 | 7:16 PM

    Thanks for this great blog. I enjoyed it a lot!

  9. […] year, in a post titled “Writing Brave,” I referenced Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water. I wrote that I loved it […]

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