How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter (or, Writing What Scares You)

Everyone's always saying to do what scares you... But what does that *actually* mean? How do we write like that? |

We're told over and over to do what scares us.

You've heard that too? As writers, as artists, as creatives, but also just as human beings: do what scares you. 

Write what scares you, do something that scares you every day, take risks.

Honestly, I do find this very exciting. I get all up in arms about it.

Rah rah rah! Yes! Do what scares you!

And then I calm down and think: 1) What the heck does that even mean?

2) And also, actually, no thank you.

Since "doing what scares me," applied literally, would involve a lot of stepping into traffic, leaping off cliffs, and working in a chemistry lab, I'm guessing that all these risky artists are talking about something else.

Besides. I'd like to have a decent life span. And fill it with daring books.

So what does it mean, to write what scares us? What does that look like?

For starters, here's what I don't think it means: 

I don't think anyone needs to share the brutally tragic stuff of their past before they feel ready to. 

I don't think it means writing anything self-abusive. 

Pretty sure some people would disagree with me on that, but I don't care. I just don't believe writing should be about impaling ourselves on our pens.

Okay. So what does it mean, then, to be risky, to do the scary thing? I think it boils down to three things.

First, there's a sense of risk anytime you start something new (What if I fail?).

And second, there's the risk of doing something in a new way, the risk of being original (But no one's done it like this before!), which is kind of an echo of the first risk--what if I fail?

But this idea of what scares you sounds like it lies closer to home.

And actually, I think that the answer isn't so much about asking "what scares you?"

Instead, let's look in the opposite direction: 

What grabs your heart?

What do you care about? Specifically, what do you care about so much that you would fight for it, tooth and nail? 

If all the stuff of your life were stripped away for some reason, if you lost everything, but you could keep three things, what three things would they be? 

Home, family, faith, pursuits, friends, land, health, abilities, memories, possessions?

At the core, what do you love?

... Do you have a general idea? A specific idea? Awesome. Me too.

Next question. (And this is where it gets really good.)

Who in your story loves what you love, to the same degree that you love it? 

Which characters are passionate about what you value? And not in a vague, of-course-they-do kind of way. But in a specific, definite, extremely-clear-to-the-reader way.

Do we get to see them fight for it? Scratching and kicking?

Do you ever strip everything else in their lives away, boiling it down, till their life is about fighting for this one thing?

Here's my confession: I've written characters who cared about stuff I just don't care about. Or, they shared my values, but in a general yeah-whatever way.

I tried to make those books work, but, um, nope. I couldn't really believe in the characters. I clearly wasn't invested in it.  

This trilogy I'm writing, though... At its core, it's about truth and family. 

Stuff I care about. In a tooth-and-nail way.

There's a scene, midway through the third book, where the aunt says a line of dialogue to her oldest niece--and writing that line just about destroyed me. I had to put my notebook down and bawl for a moment.

What?! Why?? My writing process doesn't normally involve snot, so what's up with that?

I'd somehow put everything I feel about being an aunt--all the crazy, insane love I feel for my nieces and nephew--into that one line. 

Especially how it was delivered, in the context of that moment. After everything desperate that had already happened. With everything climactic still to come.

The wording isn't fancy. The setting is simple. 

But when I wrote it, I put a piece of my core out there on paper.

And yeah, that does feel scary.

I mean, there they are, my guts, in between quotation marks!! 

I do feel a little exposed by that. 

And that's what I think is at the center of all this do-what-scares-you talk. 

If we aren't invested in these stories, why write them? If we aren't bringing our values, our emotions to the book, why bother? 

I'm guessing that you and I, we both want to write books that will grab our readers by the shoulders and not let go. We want to draw characters that will live in their minds and their hearts. 

Who might even inspire them. Maybe even give them courage. 

To do that, we need to dig deep into the things we care about. We've gotta get really personal.

We need to feel the pain of what it would be to lose those things, to have them threatened or taken away. And then put that fight and those feelings into words.

That, to me, is a recipe for a story that will grip. A story someone won't be able to put down.

What does that require of us, though? Being generous. Generous to the point of discomfort. (Maybe even generous to the point of snot.)

It means stretching ourselves: when I'm writing scenes like this, my heart beats faster. Literally. I'm breathing faster as I write. I get a bit anxious. And at the end of the day, I feel like I've been through something. Like I've been crying, or shouting. 

Is that weird? Yes! It feels super weird

But it has also helped me turn out manuscripts that I'm proud of. Stories that are saying what I want to say to the world

So that's what it means to me. It means: you have to dare.

Dare to be utterly honest about the exact kind of human you are.

Show what it means to care so dang much about the things you care about.

It means writing the scenes the way they should be written. Even if you look over the page and see your own guts, laid bare for everyone to see.

It means not racing over those parts in your story that would challenge your characters in the same way you dread being challenged. 

It means not letting clichés fill your pages, but instead, asking yourself how it really feels, what it's really like, and daring to be honest about that. 

It means flinging yourself into your story, no matter what.