Thursday, January 21, 2016

Risk and the word

In my undergrad days when I tried on the poet mantle, conversations would often turn to the question of how best to live a writer’s life. Is it necessary to do notable things to in order to write out-of-the-ordinary work? Does a writer need adventures to keep from being dull on the page?

At the time, I was lucky to have professors and mentors who dismissed that notion. By college, all of us have already witnessed enough of human nature for a lifetime of writing, and we keep on observing—honing those observations because we use our writer’s mind. And the imagination gets us the rest of the way. Anyone who wants to be a writer already lives an imaginative life, and the beauty of much writing is in making stuff up.

That’s not to say that I didn’t do risky things—accept rides from dangerous strangers, try recreational drugs, walk along a narrow outcropping while hugging a high cliff wall, root for the Cincinnati Bengals. But I came back every time, and I realized that those risks may have been important to who I was at the time, but they were not necessary for my writing.

I had friends who took things further than I did. I remember well when my friend George took off with a backpack to hitchhike across the country. He made it, too—all the way out West and back—and he came back with a deeper understanding of people, as well as with arcane knowledge of hitchhiker-specific details. (Example: If you’re only going a short way and can’t offer a ride, you hold up your fingers an inch apart to communicate that you would if you could but you can’t.)

The understanding of how people operate in different situations is invaluable to a writer. The super-specific intel about different ways of living is, too. But a lot of this accrues just from living observantly. The person who serves your coffee is not significantly less complex and fascinating than the one who parasails. They may even be the same person.

So, I offer a belated thanks to my mentors for that good advice when I was younger. On rare occasions I took it, and it may have saved me. It’s the same advice I give to the writers I know, and I am certain it’s the right thing to say.

But here in the relative privacy of the Internet, and in the buffer of middle age, it’s OK to raise some doubts, right? I actually think risk and adventure are both great for writers—and for humans. Today is my forty-seventh birthday, and my best memories from life aren’t of clocking in steadily at work and enjoying my quiet scrutiny of the people around me. I jumped a train once, for heaven’s sake. I once threw everything I owned in a Volkswagen and drove as far away from the Bengals as I could get on the three tanks of gas I could afford. I kissed lots of people. I wore lots of hairstyles. I ate cow brains and sheep balls. I streaked.

My standard advice to students is going to remain the same: You do not need to live a risky life to take risks in your writing. This is the advice that keeps them around for another day, another semester. It can keep them from sketchy pharmaceuticals and Russian roulette and any number of truly stupid decisions—risks I would never sign off on. But some risks become lifelong memories and fodder for writing forever.

Those emerging writers who are serious about the word are going to take risks anyhow, on the page and in their lives, and silently, I cheer them on.


  1. Risks indeed.

    At one of my MFA classes , Pinkney Benedict offered a bone chilling exercise about taking risks. After we all absorbed the lesson (too detailed to include here), he looked at the clock and said we still had about 45 minutes of class time left.

    "What do we do now?" Pinkney asked while we were still recovering from the mental beat down.
    "We dance!" he bellowed.

    He turned on music and invited some people to come dance up front. Best class EVER!

    1. Academia needs more dance parties! There's no excuse for a couple of online instructors like us not having these EVERY DAY. :)