Diving into the Deep: Embracing the Risks of the Writing Life
I recently rediscovered the joys of swimming in the ocean. In Northern California, this means plunging into the Pacific, which is bitingly cold. The water when it first hits your feet is almost unbearable, and it takes patience to go deeper—skin tingling as the salty waves reach your belly and then your chest and your shoulders.
On my most recent trip to the seashore, I waded into the dark blue waters until I was neck deep. In the distance the line of the horizon was broken by undulating water, which swelled in front of me—rising up, up, up higher than my head, leaving me no choice but to dive into and through the water.
I had delved past the line of breaking waves. Nevertheless, with every swell of water I wondered, Is this the one that will curve into a wave too big for me to handle? Is this the one that will crush me?
Entering the ocean is always a risky business. The ocean is immense. It obeys its own laws, rhythms, and tides. At any moment, it can push you under and sweep you away.
Many times as a child, I’ve braved the shallow water along the shore, leaping through the waves. Many times, I’ve been surprised by a wave larger than I expected and tumbled, caught in a seemingly never-ending spiral of water, buffeted against the sand and rocks below, bubbling foam swirling all around with no sign of which way is up. Anyone who’s been submerged by a wave has experience a moment of terror, a moment when you realize you might not surface at all.
As I returned to the shore after my most recent ocean swim, I began to think about how the risks faced by writers and artists seem to parallel the risks of the ocean. The act of creating prose, poetry, or other forms of art can sometimes feel fraught with danger. Yet, we continue writing, continue creating, continue delving into the depths.
The Risks We Take
The risks of the creative life are many and varied. They lurk around every corner of the process, from drafting to crafting, revising, sharing, and publishing. They can leap out and spring upon us at any moment. Some can be worked through or around, others are impossible to avoid, an accepted part of the writing life.
Risk of Failure
Writing is hard. No matter how well you’ve planned out an idea in your head, translating it into actual words on the page is always challenging. In my experience, the idea almost always morphs into a mutated mess that has to be sledgehammered into a shape in order to make any semblance of sense. Maybe it’ll be shined up and polished into something great. Or maybe it’ll be terrible.
The fear of failure can be paralyzing and constantly hovers in the peripheral. Maybe you find yourself staring at a blank page, imagining all the ways the thing you’re trying to create can go wrong. But in the end, to create something wonderful, you have to risk failing over and over again. You have to risk failure in order to have a chance of creating anything good.
“Tempt failure,” writes author Chuck Wendig, encouraging writers to head straight toward the danger:
Write unafraid. Do not be tempted by the comfort of mediocrity. Yeah, you’re going to fuck it up sometimes... Yes, your efforts to do something that is uniquely you and totally untested will sometimes lead to a narrative car crash. That is as it should be. I’d rather you drive me, the reader, at top speed into a wall then slowly sputter down a quiet street at 25MPH.
The reality is that, as writers, we’re going to put things down on the page that don’t work. I’ve attempted writing a number of novels over the years—and none of them have thus far turned out to be actual novels. They were failures, each and every one.
As I pursue the writing of yet another novel idea, I am aware of the fact that this one, too, might fail as a novel. I could easily dwell on that fact, obsess over it, let it consume me. But if I did that, then I might have to give up entirely.
Despite writing so many novels, short stories, and poems that have been failures, none of this work has been a waste of time. Each piece of writing that I’ve attempted—wether failure or success—has taught me something about the process of writing. I’ve learned what works, and (more importantly) what doesn’t work for my process and craft.
As you continue writing, some of what you write is going to fail. That’s fine and good and as it should be. Even when what you create doesn’t work, it’s a chance to learn and grow as a writer.
Risk of Facing Intense Emotions
Writing to one’s truth can be a difficult journey. A lot of what inspires us as writers comes from our own personal experiences—and some of those experiences are far from pleasant. Although a number of writers and creators find addressing their experiences cathartic, providing space to process and sort out their emotions, others find it confronting
In my conversation with with Roy G. Guzman on the New Books in Poetry podcast, we discussed how writing sometimes leads down dark roads, requiring the exploration of personal and cultural trauma. Writing their collection of poetry, Catrachos, had an impact on their mental health—and they had to learn how to navigate that impact as they continued to write:
I [don’t] go to the page with the expectation that I’m going to dig into triggering themes — and yet the work itself takes me there and I have to be open to that. So for me, the question [of self care or healing] is a question of temporality. Do I take care of myself before I embark on the journey of writing the poem? Do I find snippets of self healing in the process of writing the poem? Or … once I finish the poem (at least the first draft) — what resources do I have to help me cope with revisiting trauma?
You know, I’m someone who wholeheartedly believes in therapy. I believe that all writers should have free access to therapy, all artists should have free access to therapy, because art is that dangerous and art is also risky and art literally [takes] your mind, your well being, your mental health through very dangerous tunnels.
As writers it’s important that we bring self car into our process, finding a balance between creating art and maintaining our health—both physical and mental. Personally, I find journalling, meditation, exercise, and/or hashing it out with a trusted friend to be helpful in staying healthy. As you write toward difficult topics, I recommend developing a toolbox of personal and external resources to help support your mental health.
Risk of Rejection
Every creator—no matter how good they are or their level of success—faces rejection in many forms. Editors say no to our submitted work. Critics and readers write negative reviews. And with imposter syndrome, we sometimes even reject ourselves.
Rejection is inevitable—and often painful. After all our work writing, editing, experimenting, risking failure, and finally achieving something we’re proud enough of to share, it is difficult not to take rejection as a personal indictment of our capabilities. Maybe I’m not good enough, we tell ourselves. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother.
The articles and advice columns addressing the realities of rejection and how to handle its painful sting are multitudinous. These articles remind us that we’re not alone; we’ve all been there. We can power through the hurt, keep writing, keep putting our work out there.
Kim Liao at Lithub suggests targeting 100 rejections a year as a means of learning to accept rejection as a natural part of being a writer:
My vulnerable ego only wants to be loved and accepted, to have my words ring out from a loudspeaker in Times Square while a neon ticker scrolls the text across a skyscraper, but it’s a big old coward. My ego resists mustering up the courage to submit writing to literary magazines, pitch articles, and apply for grants, residencies, and fellowships. Yet these painful processes are necessary evils if we are ever to climb out of our safe but hermetic cocoons of isolation and share our writing with the world. Perhaps aiming for rejection, a far more attainable goal, would take some of the sting out of this ego-bruising exercise — which so often feels like an exercise in futility.
There is no magic pill that is going to take the hurt of rejection away. Instead, every writer has to find their own means of dealing with it—whether it’s embracing rejection by aiming for it, taking breaks from submitting when needed, or developing other self care tools to ease the sting.
The Value of Risks
As soon as I hit the beach I leap for the waves, which crash around me. At any moment I could be toppled, knocked over, submerged. The sun-glittered surface of the water—though beautiful—could be hiding ripe tides, sharks, or any number of other dangers. I let the water wash over, feel its push and pull, feel its power.
It’s hard to describe the joy I feel when I swim in the ocean. I’m aware of its power, of the risks entailed. I’m aware of my smallness. When I stand in deeper the water beyond the crashing waves, I fall into the flow of the rolling, the incoming water rising and lifting me off my feet, allowing me to hover and float for a few moments, before lowering me back down.
When I enter the ocean, I have to be present and alert to the dangers around me, and I have to trust in my ability to swim and hold myself afloat.
Writing, I find, is similar. The process of creating and sharing work comes with risks (only a few of which I’ve mentioned here). It helps to be aware of what these risks are, the various shapes they can take, and how to address them should they arise. Reading and learning from other writers is a part of this process, providing knowledge and tools to help us move forward.
I also find value in trusting the process. I read and find works that awe and inspire me. I hone my craft. I write and fail and then write some more. I keep writing. I discover a strange mix of frustration and pleasure in puzzling through how to make a story or poem work—followed by sheer delight when the piece finally clicks into place. I put my writing out into the world and face rejection, and then some more rejection. Some of what I write even gets published, some doesn’t. I write and keep writing.
As writers, learning to embrace—or at least accept—the risks of the writing life is an ongoing slog. We’re never really done, and new risks like to pop up out of the shadows. It can seem intimidating, overwhelming. But it can also be worth it, because despite the risks, the writing life also brings enough joys to make it worth it.
So dive in, take the risk. See what you discover.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: