I’ve taken a couple of clumsy falls recently. Once while running and once while walking our unruly dogs. Not a big deal, either time, just a bruised shoulder, a skinned knee, my nicked ego. More damaging is this tiny seed of fear that was left behind. It’s in my subconscious now, this fear of falling, and it affects how I look at tiny puddles on the sidewalk, and stairs, and really, my own feet which are what I tripped over in the first place.
So I got to thinking about fear and how insidious it can be. Writers are often afraid of many things. How do I start this book? How do I end it? Which parts are good? Which parts are bad? Am I telling too much? Showing too little? Can I trust my judgment? Is the writing good enough? Am I good enough? Will people like it? Will they understand me?
It’s a daunting task, this creating of a world, not for the faint-hearted. But if you focus on the overwhelming responsibility of it or the many, many facets required, you may never start (or finish). How much of it is really under our control anyway? Maybe it’s time we let go, just a little.
Think of it this way:
Have you ever been in one of those historical houses? You know, an old but restored, musty two-story with small rooms and placards strategically placed to let you know where the historical person slept and worked and ate? Doesn’t matter who it was. You’re on vacation with the family, doing your sightseeing duty for the day. Besides, you like these old houses; they offer glimpses into another time and place, another life.
There’s a tour guide. She’ll take you through the house, pointing out the occasional architectural oddity or beloved alcove. She loves the house; she and it are like old friends. Her enthusiasm is catchy, even if at times you’d rather she talked a little less about that, or more about this. Your group passes another group, led by another guide. You notice that he’s talking about the wood-burning stove in the kitchen; there, your guide focused on the dining table, which the historical person constructed from ancient oak. Oh well, you like your guide and you liked that table. On the narrow stairs, your guide points out the curved handrail (she seems obsessed with woodwork), but you are distracted by the loud creaks and groans coming from the steps. How did anyone sleep here, you wonder. At the top of the stairs, you realize how dark the house must have been at night. Some in your group stop to read the information displayed in prominent spots throughout the house. Near a window in an upstairs bedroom, a sign points out the exact spot where the historical person liked to gaze at his fields. Another sign shows the char marks where a lantern fell. You prefer to stand and ingest, imagining people moving through the rooms, hollering, whispering, laughing. When the tour is over, you’re allowed to walk through the place unsupervised. Your family disperses, each to his own point of interest. One of the kids goes outside to sulk.
Here’s the thing. When you write a novel, you are the tour guide. The readers are the visitors. You can only take them on one tour, and there’s a relief in that. You can only point out what’s interesting or important to you. Some of your visitors will listen to every word. Some will be distracted that day. Some will notice and appreciate things you didn’t. Some may even wish they had a different tour guide. But they’re on vacation, these people. Most of them have come to this house (book) because they want to experience another world. Most of them are ready to hear what you have to say about it.
Let me alleviate some pressure and tell you why you should never be afraid of taking those steps, of leading that tour. The house was already there before you came to it, and it’ll be there when you leave. The story, your novel, exists someplace outside yourself. You can only lead a tour through it once, and that’s okay. This is why sometimes when we’re writing, it takes us in a direction we hadn’t planned. This is why readers notice and are moved by aspects you didn’t anticipate. Because the house (story) is its own entity. It sets up its own tiny placards, relaying its own version of the story. So conduct your tour, talk about the parts that move you, the things you think are important. If you want to go upstairs first, do it. If you want to skip that wood-burning stove, skip it. Look around and tell what you know. Maybe you’ll forget something you wanted to say, maybe you’ll take a wrong turn and have to go back. Maybe you’ll even ramble on here and there. Tell your story, guide your tour. It’s all you can do. Somewhere there may be someone who could do a better job but who cares! He’s not here, is he? You’re the one, here on the doorstop, ready to begin.
Mary Vensel White is a contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.