For reasons unknown, I used to teach creative writing. The don’t-think/just-let-it-rip type of teaching, and depending on how willing/able people were to try it, I was mildly successful. I taught this way because it was the only way I knew – or know – how to write. Not suited to everyone, I found out.
But once, a student came back to class and said she let it rip for a half hour straight and apparently, she’d dug deep, pulled out something painful. Her eyes were huge, her voice shaky: “It scared the hell out of me!”
I was young, and as you might have guessed, not a great teacher. Great teachers clarify, illuminate, impart useful information. (What made me think I could do this???) So while I felt for her, I had no words to explain it.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I have those words. I could have told her that yeah, writing can be scary. It can be painful. Because writing is a risky business. Because it’s about letting go and going for the jugular. Because fiction writers have to be prepared to go for their own jugular and dig up their darkest secrets — over and over again. Agatha Christie put it succinctly: “writing is torture.”
While I’ve never been scared by what I’ve written, I can say, letting the story go where it’s wanted to go, I’ve been surprised by where it’s gone and what it’s revealed.
I’ve read that writer Doris Betts – who writes both novels and short stories – once said that the novel is prose growth, and the short story is prose revelation. This explains a lot to me! It explains why, when my short stories work well, they give me the chills. (I have one particular story that still gives me the chills!)
In any case, if I were ever to go back to teaching (not!), I‘d still use the let-it-rip type of teaching. It’s what I believe in, it’s worked for me and it’s worked for thousands of other writers.
So here’s what I know: I know what works for me, and I know teaching is not for me, But I very much like certain writing prompts. So how about this one: Write a piece of fiction that reveals something you have never told anyone before. Don’t think, don’t judge. Just go….
If you get something that scares you – or gives you a little chill – awesome!