The Mark Blog

On Boldness


Image: Carol Aust

“Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”— William Zinsser: On Writing Well

This week, I’ve been thinking about boldness.

We received directives from Antoine and Rob about our manuscripts. These notes are intended to guide comprehensive revisions and the generation of new writing, until Mid-Project Review in March. They’re based on each faculty member’s close reading of our manuscripts and the conversations we held during the Project Defense.

I often know that something is true when I really don’t want to hear (or read) it. For example, Directive #2: “…both the book and the protagonist seem to be afraid of ever being unlikable in the manuscript.”

Ta-da. It stinks when something stings because it’s true.

Okay, how, then, to become bold?

One of the mysteries of fiction that continues to puzzle me is the relationship between conscious craft and subconscious creativity. We enter “vivid and continuous dreams” (John Gardner), we “write to discover what [we] know” (Flannery O’Connor); yet, at a certain point, we as authors must also make conscious decisions. How do we know whether those decisions are right for the work, or if our author-selves are trampling on the good work that’s already been done?

I know that human beings, and fictional characters, aren’t 100% good or bad or anything. Of course, part of what allows us to identify with characters is that they are, at times, "unlikeable." And of course, part of what reveals a character's humanity are her inconsistencies, and things she longs to hide from the world.

Right now I’m reading Battleborn, a collection of short stories by Claire Vaye Watkins that came out this fall. I'm reading this book for the distant and evocative tone, the lovely language and sentence construction, and the elements “surprising yet inevitable” (O’Connor, again) in each one. I’m also reading Blasphemy, Sherman Alexie’s latest collection. I read his work for the directness of language, for the emotional investment and questioning in each piece, and for moments that are politically and personally complicated in premise. “Breaking and Entering” is one of my favorite short stories ever. I love books that are dazzled with language and imagery. But when I’m reading simply for what speaks to my heart, I love books that don’t call attention to the writing itself. I like disappearing into worlds. I like seeing where I am, and whom I’m with, and knowing who they are.

A great teacher once told a workshop of which I was a member, Ignore 80% of the feedback you receive in this class. Boldness, I believe, happens when you embrace the feedback that dealt that tried-and-true sting; then doing something about it, in writing.