“On Fearless Writing”

I’ve been writing fiction and essays for twenty years. Since 2010, I have tried to write fearlessly. Though I’m not quite there yet. What is fearless writing? Metaphorically, I have told those who’ve asked, it’s writing like you just escaped prison and are driving a stolen car down the wrong side of the freeway at night without headlights while wearing dark sunglasses, the music blasting and a defrocked nun smiling in the passenger seat. Yes, that sounds insane and is an exaggeration. Literally, it means shutting out the negative voices in your mind: What would my parents think about this? How would my sisters react? Would my friends think I was warped, clinically insane if they read this? Might strangers consider me a horrible person? By ignoring such distractions, you can write with force and describe all aspects of the reality around you, not shying away from either the sublime or that which might possibly disturb people.

Who are fearless writers? I believe there were many in the 20th century. Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Joan Didion, and William Burroughs come to mind. More recently? Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Aimee Bender, and Denis Johnson.

I don’t believe in writing with the solitary purpose of shocking or nauseating the reader. However, the world we live in involves war as well as peace; marriage and divorce and infidelity; crime, psychosis, and suicide; love and betrayal, empathy and jealousy; mind expansion as well as drug addiction and death from substance abuse. People not only ascend in life but have phases where they plummet downward. To ignore the unpleasant topics as a fiction writer means you are basically writing fantasy, instead of using the veil of fiction to dig deep into essential, universal human truths. Such writing might help those who have encountered similar harsh truths or are going through them at present. Fiction about the consequences of destructive behavior may steer younger readers away from such mistakes.

The current century, and especially the current decade, seems to be a time when everyone is oversensitive and easily offended. Whether it’s conservative or devoutly religious people holding onto an imagined past where they were happy and held more power, or from the politically correct who want to delete anything troubling from discourse, to hide from the jagged edges of the real world. Could Lolita or Ulysses be published today?  Yes, but they would be attacked and reviled by both the right and left in the current climate. Should all characters be “likable” or “relatable”? I don’t believe so. I read Sherlock Holmes novels as a teen and didn’t find him either likable or relatable, but fascinating and different, a complicated character both superhuman and sometimes lacking in basic humanity.

It is important to state that writing fearlessly does not mean to write with racist, sexist, or homophobic intent in the storytelling or from the narrator’s voice. However, if writing about a fictional family, one member might be honest and tolerant, while another might harbor religious prejudices, one might not like women, or LGBT people, another might have committed a secret crime in the past, another might have—gasp!–voted for the current President. The writer should be true to all the varying characters and depict them the way they are instead of making them uniformly “likable” or “relatable.”

Happy endings are cool, but so are unhappy ones, and ambiguous ones. Science fiction and horror used to be writing zones where there was an acceptance that bad things happened, but recently I’ve seen journals that want horror fiction with happy endings, and sci-fi where the future isn’t bleak, but a positive, healthy place without racial, political, or religious divisions.

Life is messy. People are complicated–with good and bad sides. To write about real life, one must dig into that messiness. Will doing that offend readers? Yes, some definitely will be. But consider that even creators who appear to be universally loved, like The Beatles, Norman Rockwell, J. K. Rowling, and Charles Schulz, have their vociferous detractors too. To go into fiction writing with the sole aim of being liked seems a doomed conceit. Check out Amazon reviews or YouTube comments and you will see legendary writers and musicians best work trashed by troll-like people who seem enraged that such bold creation can even exist. Perhaps writers are not born courageous, but become more fearless the longer they write, as they understand more, and grow confident in their voice.

I do not endorse fearless idiocy. We have world leaders who act fearless out of ignorance, stumbling from one misfortune to the next outrage. As writers, if we want to break the rules with style, we must learn them all first. Be able to defend our choices. Be reckless, but with intelligence and clear purpose.

I have been published in a decent number of magazines, online journals, and print anthologies. However, a larger number have not, and likely will never publish my work. As writers, I believe we must all find our tribe, locate fellow madmen (and madwomen), and seek out the ones who really get what we are doing, and love us for that. Casting a buttermilk net in the hopes of reaching a wide swath of a fickle reading audience to vaguely like or tolerate your work will prove a frustrating exercise. To garner a strong reaction—whether love or sometimes hate—has become the only way to write for me. Fearless writing attempts, as my friend Nick Deitch says, “to reach for the truth in all its glorious, beautiful, ugly, and horrid manifestations.” It is not always easy to achieve that with grace and mastery, and when one fails, such writing may come off as arrogant, smug, and obnoxious. However, perhaps it is worth the risks if it can get us even an iota closer to a deeper understanding of humanity in its many moods and guises.

As Randle P. McMurphy said after failing to lift the giant fountain off the bathroom floor to escape in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, “Well, at least I tried…”

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Max Talley

About Max Talley

Max Talley is the author of the novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, published in 2014. His fiction and essays have appeared in Del Sol Review,  The Opiate, Gravel, Hofstra University - Windmill, Bridge Eight, and Litro Magazine, among others. Talley was born in New York City and currently resides in Southern California. He teaches a writing workshop each summer at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. www.maxdevoetalley.com