That terrible secret carried since childhood.
The time you didn’t get busted, because nobody witnessed the crime.
How you feel about that person -- that person everybody else adores.
Painful, personal things we want to avoid thinking about.
But writers should do the exact opposite.
Writing books -- novels in particular -- is a perennially fearful journey. With each book, the writer begins with a flat field of good intention but soon enough everything is getting tilled, furrowed, hoed, seeded and then this strange unexpected harvest appears, the kind of odd fruit that causes the writer utter defensive statements to editors. Things like: “Well, I know I said the book was about quilting, but that was before I realized all these quilters were serial killers.”
Writers sympathize with bad guys, because an author who doesn’t creates cardboard villains. We show the worst things happening to the nicest people, because conflict turns pages. We dig down to the messiest parts of the soul because -- wait, you are digging down to the messiest parts. Aren’t you?
Because that’s where the reader needs us -- and wants us.
More importantly, that’s where God wants us.
Consider the disciples in the boat:
“On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, 'Let us go across to the other side.' And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. . . . A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!' Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Mark 4:35-40 (NRSV)
If I could invent one tool for writers it would be a Fear-o-Meter. Looks like a hand-held compass but emits an ear-piercing screech whenever pointed at the writer’s worst fear. More than an embarrassing device for a humiliating profession, the Fear-o-Meter’s real purpose would be to make writers stop, and consider.
Maybe all that's needed is confession and repentance. Maybe more trust in the power of Jesus Christ.
But for writers, fear is usually a signal to start writing, start looking deep into those swirling emotions.
Of course, that kind of examination requires hard work. Really hard work. And in the meantime, writers have thousands of ideas. Hundreds of stories. Dozens of great characters.
Unfortunately, most of them are worthless.
Nobody can guarantee that writing about what scares you will automatically bring a best-seller. But it does mean your books are much more likely to have passion, and life, and that undefinable quality that draws in readers who later say, “Gee, I thought I was the only one who felt that way . . . .”
Those two highly esteemed theologians, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, sat down last year for an interview before a live audience at the Apollo Theatre. Springsteen offered some insights into writing songs, and since his songs always sound like short stories to me, I sat up to listen.
Guess what? The Boss has got a Fear-O-Meter!
And he never leaves home without it:
"I’ve always believed the greatest rock and roll musicians are desperate men. You’ve got to have something bothering you all the time. My songs are good because … it’s like in art and love, hey, one and one makes three. In music, if it makes two, you’ve failed, my friends . . . . If all you got is your notes, you’ve failed. You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t completely understand, but that is truly coming up from inside of you. And you can set it any place, you can choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that thing, then you’re just not gonna have anything to say, and it’s not gonna feel like it has life and breath in it, you’re not gonna create something real, and it’s not gonna feel authentic. So I worked hard on those things."