Being a writer is easy. You just sit down and write. Being a good writer is much harder. For a time, I worked at The Indiana Review, and I was always eavesdropping on the editors, trying to find that one little nugget of truth that made a “yes” piece. Was it something about the language? The characters? The plot? What was missing from my work that would take it from mediocre to good? So, I asked one of the editors, Tessa Yang, what she sought. She replied, “Freshness and risk will capture my attention. I’m looking for something that dares in the first few pages. It needs to have difficult and new language, character, or concept. At the same time, what keeps me reading to the end—and what ultimately convinces me to vote for a piece—is earnestness and vulnerability. I’ve become less and less interested in emotional withholding. If you’re brave enough to reach for honesty and feeling, no matter concerns about sentimentality or mawkishness, I’ll want to take the plunge with you.”
Freshness? Risk? I tried to square this idea with “write what you know.” It’s that adage that every author knows. What I knew was everyone else’s work. I had decades of reading other people’s words. Everything I wrote read like my favorite authors. When I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wrote a short story about a man trying to find his son in a post-apocalyptic world. It wasn’t half bad, but there was nothing new in it. During my Stephen King phase, I wrote macabre pieces about the baser side of mankind. They were mediocre at best. My poems had bits of Frost and Dickinson, slapped together with a touch of Whitman and a dash of Poe. It was only later that I found a place where my work was my own. Somewhere along the way, I found a voice that was only mine. Sure, it echoes with reverberations of the millions of words I have read. It stands on the shoulders of the authors whose work I relished. That doesn’t make it less mine. Writing what you know doesn’t have to be boring. It just starts emotionally, physically, or aesthetically in a place you are familiar.
The other half of the advice concerned emotional vulnerability. That process of letting your characters show your own emotion. This is even harder. Modern society doesn’t have much place for emotional vulnerability. We love it in our romantic comedies. We love that moment when the plucky but underappreciated woman convinces the emotionally absent male lead to open his heart to a chance at love. We like to see a hint of it in politicians because it makes them seem like real people. We wait for that moment when they swear, or slip up, or stumble. In everyday life, though, no one wants to see the innermost emotions of your local barista, the man walking his dog, or the neighbor you barely know. However, it is important to your character because without seeing their emotional vulnerability, the reader cannot grasp why they behave the way they do. A story needs this in order to engage the reader. Each piece of emotion lays bare a piece of the author’s soul. Not every character is like me or does what I would do, but each character is a part of me. To send those little pieces out into the world, to allow someone else to see them, is to put those vulnerable Horcruxes of my soul in danger of discovery and critique. It was my own vulnerability that is needed, my own willingness to be open and available.
In short, what I learned was that the easiest way to get an answer is to ask the question. And being a better writer is hard. It takes writing more, reading more, and editing more. It requires that I be willing to part with pieces of my soul and be vulnerable. It is this last piece that I have struggled to overcome. I have the language, the vocabulary, even the imagination. Letting a stranger, let alone a multitude of them, into the private recesses of your being is what a writer does. Anything short of that isn’t worth my time or my reader’s time. Good writing begins with emotion and is propelled by prose and plot. Whether we like or dislike a character is immaterial; we must believe in their humanity in order to care what happens to them. A writer puts a piece of her own humanity into her characters, breathing life in where before there only existed form. Becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey, not a destination. At no point does the learning and editing stop. I can try every day to improve my craft and so, too, can you. It requires taking risks and creating emotional vulnerability. Both of those are tasks which even seasoned and published authors struggle to accomplish. By writing every day and actively seeking to better ourselves as artists, we become better each day.