Friday, June 17, 2016

The Push to Do Risky Things with Your Writing

Risk is a place where many creative writers live.  We may not enjoy it but we have to take risks to grow as writers.  It's a risk every time we send our work to someone for feedback, take a class, approach an agent, or even when we finally get our books published.  

Each risk
takes us outside our comfort zone.  But I find risk an essential element in my writing life.  Without it, I repeat and repeat.  I never get better.

I'd like my risks to be well planned, ideally pain-free.  Not always possible, of course.  Life surprises us.  I remember when I got an interview on NPR about my book.  Huge risk.  But it was something I'd worked towards for months.  I learned a lot and my book got some good exposure.

But I do structure big risks--when I want to take the next step with my writing and know I need a community and mentor to do this, for example.  If I know what kind of help I need, I can look for a certain kind of writing community (a class, a retreat) and check the credentials of the instructor or mentor.  Do they have what I'm looking for? 

A lot of writers approach me about structure.  They need help with it, and it's hard to find.  I refer them to others who have worked with me, I share my book and my videos--my particular approach.  I find out where they are on the journey to produce a book and what kind of structure help they might need right now. 

One of my favorite ways to teach structure is on retreat.  This July, I'm leading a book-structuring retreat for a week at Madeline Island School of the Arts, on an island in Lake Superior off the coast of northern Wisconsin.  I like teaching there not just because it's a gorgeous place to relax and find missing bandwidth for creativity.  But because I get to gently take writers through the process of structure analysis for their project, over five days of working one-to-one. 
A wide variety of writers come each year.  This is the seventh year I've taught there and some writers come back each summer, working on one book until it's published then going for the next one.  I teach a different agenda each summer, based on new stuff I've learned in my own writing and teaching during the year.  To gentle the risk, I build in three classroom sessions of three hours each, where we explore the top three elements of book-structuring:  the three arcs of a book (event arc, narrative or character arc, image arc for theme); how chapters are built; and crafting strong transitions between and within chapters and scenes.  I bring my favorite writing tools and exercises, excerpts from books I've discovered. 

I can see the risk in the faces of the writers who gather on Sunday night for our welcome session.  We sit in the classroom around the big worktable and introduce ourselves and our books.  Some faces look eager, some downright petrified.  I hear about their struggles and their hopes, and I make notes and begin to plan how to work with each person that week.  I want to push them but at a pace they can handle.

There's still risk, though.  One writer of young adult fiction emailed me after the retreat:  "The push to do risky things brought me to a place I would not have gone, especially writing the last chapter."  She called it magic--the way the push was gentle enough to let her take a risk but not feel like she'd be destroyed by it.

Some writing retreats I've attended have too much free time.  Others have too much structured time.  Too much free time usually brings me to a panic level--I jump into a risk but no one is there to catch me.  Too much structure leaves me itching for my own head space and my own words.   I think the Madeline Island retreats have grown to a beautiful balance of the two, with lots of options.  If the writing is going along well, there's no need to stop.  If you get stuck, join the community at a meal and share the stuck places you've discovered.  If you need more ideas, I'm there to suggest some and coach you through them.

Risk is a good thing if well managed.  The goal is to keep writing.  Your weekly writing exercise is to consider one risk you'd like to take this week or this month, and how you might manage it to give yourself a gentle ride.    

More about my retreat July 18-22 (still room) and July 25-29 (a few spots left) is here.