Take a Risk: Write More than “What You Know”

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“Fear is felt by writers at every level. Anxiety accompanies the first word they put on paper and the last.” ― Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear

When We Know the Topic

Some subjects seem to write themselves. For more than twenty-eight years, I have written about the panic, horrors, mistakes and self-hate in my addiction and the redemption and blessings of recovery. I wrote of my fears, longings, and harm to others, as well as the joys and rewards of recovery. That writing came easily, without a thought as to whether I was writing something correctly. It was not that I was dismissive of correct writing. However, I had lived my subject and as such, words for the experiences, methods, and outcomes flowed effortlessly when I put them to the page.

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I’ve conducted twice-weekly recovery groups and been comfortable talking about addiction and recovery. My clients and readers were appreciative and credited me with “knowing what it was like”, or “I can see you walked in my shoes”.
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Many of my addiction posts are about the problem and a solution. I often write about changing aspects of personality or self-defeating behaviors. I then tend to add concrete solutions that, if adopted, will demonstrate these changes. Because of a particular article or my recovery curriculum, people sometimes assume then that I am this fearless, courageous person. What my readers don’t realize is that because the topic is so familiar, it’s easy to write fearlessly about it. However, that’s not always the case for a writer when the topic is new.
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Writing When Uncertain

The reality is that I have many fears. I have simply made a choice not to let my fears overcome my desire to expand, get better at, and to share my opinions and experiences, not just about addiction and recovery, but about writing.

When Scott asked me to start writing more at Two Drops of Ink, I was skeptical about whether I could write about effective writing, or add perspectives that were unique. There are moments when my fingers effortlessly move from one letter to the next, without thinking or editing or seemingly paying any attention to the black squiggly lines as I find the right words that make the page seem less barren and bleak. Alternatively, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”. When I have those lightening moments, it makes the days of struggling to create exciting content about writing worthwhile.

I’d like to share with you some of the many ways I avoided writing and eventually overcame my fears of writing on a new subject. I hope they encourage you to step out of your comfort zone.

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Just the Absolutely, Perfect, Spot-On, Right Word

Some days the words do not flow; I struggle with joining them, or the words spread on the page and all I can do is change and fix the computer notices of incorrect writing. Those mistakes like:
• Long sentence
• Grammar
• Sentence fragment
• Split infinitives
• Verb-noun agreement
• Spelling mistakes
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Although making fun of fishing for words, Jarod Kintz also makes a point, “Writers fish for the right words like fishermen fish for, um, whatever those aquatic creatures with fins and gills are called.”
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Stop Fishing and Write

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I have a hard time picturing any of the great authors and writers sitting under the spreading chestnut tree with a dictionary, Thesaurus, or a rhyming dictionary, not to mention the extra quills and ink pots. I think that great writing is more than using a Thesaurus to make a point with the exact word.
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It is using words in a way that give readers enough information that the combination of words move readers to realize “so-that-is-how-it-works”, or exclaim, “wow”, or that best of all experiences, the “aha moment”.
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Simplicity in my choice of words does not mean I disrespect my readers and dumb it down. The goal is to work with readers, giving them unfussy, straightforward words and let the reader hear me speaking in their heads.

Stop Trying to Impress and Write

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I still do not think that most great literature or writing uses obscure language, other than Thomas Pynchon and Ezra Pound. You know you are writing obscurely when it is necessary to have a dictionary to facilitate your work; The Ezra Pound Dictionary is the ultimate example.
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I have a responsibility to present material in a way that makes reading easy, even for complex ideas. I have yet, after forty-five years, to make it through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Moreover, should any Pynchon readers care to comment, I have read the first 150 pages multiple times.
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I have also driven through fog many times. While I know that there is an end to the density of that, I do not have faith or interest in seeing if I can come out of the Rainbow’s fog.
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From a review: “Gravity’s Rainbow is bone-crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted.”
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There, I rest my case.
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Collaborate and Connect with Readerswoman wrapped up in book words

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Writing and reading are a collaborative effort. One way to see if I have accomplished this symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship with readers is to read my work aloud before I publish it. If I am stumbling over words, realize there should be a pause in the flow of words, or I have incorrectly connected two unrelated thoughts or clauses with a semi-colon, my readers will have the same problems.
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Readers want a connection to the writer. Do they want to delve into my head? I am not sure; however, they do want something original from the mind of the writer that either resonates with them, prompts them to think, helps them with a problem, or gives them a focal point for disagreement. I am enjoying the discipline and structure that writing about writing is giving me. It makes me think about all of the writers who have sat for endless hours stringing words together to entertain, educate or enlighten readers. Most writers stress that we do not improve in our writing without taking risks.

So, it’s still risky to write about writing, but I’m not as fearful of publishing this; it is encouraging, informative and entertaining.  So quoting Neil Gaiman, “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.” But for those days when the writing stalls I’ll remember this poem by Charles Ghigna.

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stairs-in-water-under-the-surface

The path to inspiration starts

Beyond the trails we’ve known;

Each writer’s block is not a rock,

But just a stepping stone.

We also get better by reading, so for now, I’ll go read. I will analyze, scrutinize, and visualize what another wordsmith has written about, absorbing his or her words and learning.
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I may then realize that there is another stepping stone to inspire me to write fearlessly about more than what I know. I hope this post encourages you to move beyond writing just what you know.
 

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

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2 comments

  1. Good afternoon, Peter; to reiterate: writing about addiction and recovery were rather second nature to me after 25 years in the field, but I was thrilled when I started writing about writing. Thanks for the kind words and support.

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  2. Reblogged this on and commented:

    Writing is a great challenge for many people even to write about subject matter that is familiar to themselves, yet a good writer will from time to time be asked to write beyond what they know, I am linking today to a great article by writer Marilyn Davies when she was asked to write about a subject she was unfamiliar with. The challenge is that writing about what you know almost becomes second nature once you have become a writer and have chosen to regularly contribute through a blog, etc.

    It is like a zoologist being asked to discuss botany, of course they know something about the subject, because they know animals eat and interact with plants, they know about plants, but they do so from a different aspect. A writer knows how to use words because they use them all the time. Marilyn Davies is an addiction specialist, which is largely what she wrote about, until one day being asked to write about writing, the rest is history…

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