We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.
A few days ago, fellow blogger Aaron posed this question to a group of writers in which we both participate:
What would you never write?
I think our failure to be brave with our words leads to cheap art, and when we use our spirituality as an excuse to pull punches in our writing we commit a tragic sin toward the faith we are professing.
So, what would you never write? Why are you scared to write that?
My first instinct was to say, “Well, I think I’ve reached a point where I wouldn’t say there is anything I won’t write.” I guess that’s a pretty good answer, other than the fact that it’s a downright lie.
When considering the question, I realized there are two things here: What won’t I write, and what am I afraid to write. Those require separate responses.
There are definitely things I won’t write. I don’t enjoy reading or writing graphic violence; you will never see anything written by me in which I have described a bloodbath. I will not write rape or domestic violence in a way that glamorizes, glorifies, or titillates. There are genres of literature that I don’t care to read or write; while I won’t say never, I can say that it’s highly unlikely. Outside of those things, I’m not sure if there is anything else–only time will tell.
As for what I’m afraid to write, I think that category is shrinking, though a few things remain. I have already broken most of the barriers I had put up against my own creativity. I swore up and down that there were things I would absolutely never, ever write, because to do so would mean that I had somehow failed as a Christian. As I took a hammer and whacked at every single brick I had used to build my walls, I figured out that in every single case, they were all shame-based fears.
This is one of the destructive forces of conservative evangelical culture. Rather than viewing sin as a system of harm, sin has been reduced to a list of behaviors in which we must not engage–an updated and warped version of the Old Testament holiness codes, used to cow people into submission to “authority.” (I could spend a very long time parsing this, but I’m digressing from my original point about writing.) The result is people who are not only afraid to commit certain acts but are also afraid to think and write about them. God is reduced to a Big, Angry Sky Daddy who cares more deeply about “immoral” thoughts than about the least of these.
For years, I thought that my writing had to reflect this bizarre and restrictive attitude. I must either refrain from having characters engage in certain behaviors (most notably, swearing and sex), or I could have them do what they wanted but pass judgment on them for it. Premarital sex was supposed to lead to disease or pregnancy and possibly be unpleasant or unwanted (particularly for women). Sexual encounters must be implied rather than described, because erotic scenes could stir up inappropriate desires. Swearing was reserved for nasty characters and must be softened rather than spelled out. God forbid I should have any LGBT characters, unless they were tokens and/or “reformed” by the end of the story. Even romantic literature itself sat on the fine edge between good storytelling and “emotional porn.”
Most of these taboos I learned while I was still in high school. Because I felt a duty to “let my faith inform my writing,” my words became like dust. Rather than being full of hope, life, and love, they were no more than parroting of the Rules for Right Thinking I had learned. It didn’t help that I attended college and befriended a number of people who still kept to these rigid standards. Even though I spent ten years in a far less suffocating church, I couldn’t let go of most of my hang-ups.
And then I ended up among even more conservative evangelicals than during my adolescence.
Call it rebellion. Call it emerging. Whatever term you use, I woke up. I am actually thankful for that environment, because it was so much more extreme than what I’d experienced before that I couldn’t help seeing the damage being done. I finally found my voice, and I was determined to use it. Oh, I tested the waters cautiously at first, but it didn’t take long for me to dive in and start swimming.
I have now written nearly everything on my naughty list. I’ve had characters swear like sailors; make love passionately; meet and fall in love with someone of the same sex; and do all of that without apology. I’ve written about where I stand on feminism, LGBT issues, and the Bible. I’ve even written about my history with rules-based theology in the churches I’ve attended (and people who know me absolutely know which churches I’m talking about, so the secret’s out). Trust me when I say there’s not much left that scares me when it comes to writing.
Aaron left us a challenge as writers:
Today, write something you would never write. Stop pulling the punches. Stop being afraid of what they would say. Write hard. Share it with us; preach to us that writers and artists stir the pot instead of getting out of the hot kitchen.
I’m taking that challenge seriously. There are things I haven’t written–in fiction or on this blog–that I’ve been hesitant to share. But I’m going to go for it, because the only way to overcome those fears is to face them head-on. The only way to grow as a writer is to acknowledge that I’m terrified of the reaction and take it on anyway.
What are you afraid to do (as a writer or in another capacity)? How will you knock down the walls you’ve built?