Noodling about on Facebook today, looking for something to write about, I came across someone else's blog: THIS ONE. In moving terms, the blogger writes about having hurt people with her writing and become afraid to continue with it.
My initial reaction was contempt, but as I read on, I saw her point. Who among us has not cringed when some careless comment struck at a friend's hidden insecurities? Who has not experienced a little compunction when attacking a controversial subject? Who has not held back from repeating certain words?
Now, I'm not saying Ms Corcoran, who wrote the blog I've mentioned, was wrong in her reaction. She does not tell us in what way her writing hurt people. Perhaps it was in some direct and personal way. But it got me thinking about the shifting way in which a lot of writers seem to be approaching their work.
The culture among writers, at least among the independent community, seems lately to be moving ever away from frank and fearless expression and towards the safe. We discuss in writers' groups whether certain things will offend readers. We put 'trigger warnings' in blurbs. God forbid a reader should encounter anything confronting. Note here - I use the term 'we' loosely. You will not find me putting 'trigger warnings' on anything. I think that's bullshit.
There has even been a move to bowdlerise classic works. Twain and Lovecraft, for example, both freely use a certain word that most decent people today would not allow to pass their lips, and rightly so. I am sure you know the word to which I refer; I cannot bring myself to write it, even in this clinical context. It's the word that, as soon as you see it or hear it, you know the writer or speaker is a racist of the blackest stamp, and not someone you want to know. Yes, that's the word I mean. You've got it now, haven't you?
This kind of misplaced consideration is as far from the attitude a working writer needs as it can be. Once you allow yourself to change your story from your own vision of it to something that won't offend or upset anyone, you have taken your first steps down a dark path that will end with your being dismissed as a 'mere hack', along with the people who churn out formula books at the rate of one a fortnight. It is analogous to the demands of science. My mother-in-law, an eminent scientist in her day, always used to say, 'Once you become a True Believer, you've stopped being a scientist.' And with her, I would say, 'once you become a nursemaid to snowflakes, you've stopped being a good writer.'
Remember, it's not your job to prevent the reader from experiencing negative emotion. There is no plot without conflict. There is no story without an antagonist. You want to pick your reader up by the scruff of the neck and take him where you decide he is to go. Perhaps you'll lull him with a soft pleasant sequence and suddenly kick him right in the guts. That's a dramatic moment, and good stories are full of them. Perhaps you'll bear down on him with a relentless sequence of darkness and evil, and suddenly tickle him into wild laughter. It's your call, and you need to do some of this, or your story won't have an impact. And a story with no impact is a story that's forgotten as soon as the book is closed, no matter how pleasant it was. The important thing is that you write your story. And when you do that, if it's a good story, you'll engage your reader.
Sometimes, when you engage your reader, it isn't going to be pleasant. Cujo almost broke me. I cried buckets reading that book. But it didn't turn me against King. My early devotion to King's work did run out, but that was because he went too far for me. You see, it was important to me that when I read the last page and closed the book, I could find myself once again in a safe and familiar place. Thank heaven, I'd say to myself, there are no vampires/wendigos/evil alien spacecraft buried underground. When I read Misery, although the book had all the same character engagement, excitement and horror I was used to from King, I lacked that 'safe space' when I finished it. Because cruel nurses really are a thing. I've met them myself. There used to be one at Bendigo Base Hospital; this woman had mastered the art of using one of those harmless ear thermometers to produce an instant of intense, searing agony. So with King's progression to the evil of ordinary humans, I regretfully parted ways with him.
Was King wrong to take this new direction? I don't think so. Certainly from my personal, selfish viewpoint I regretted it, but in his shoes I'd not have done anything different. Perhaps at some stage he asked himself, is this new direction 'going too far' for some readers? Perhaps not. Either way, I can almost hear him saying something along the lines of 'bugger that, I'm sticking to my story.'
If King did, in fact, consciously advert to the possibility of some of his readers being driven away by the new direction he was taking in his work, he certainly didn't allow himself to be deterred by it. And I believe he was utterly right. If he had deliberately turned his back on where his vision was leading him, I believe his work would have lost the authenticity that it has; that voice of conviction that makes his books work as well as they do. And, of course, his enduring popularity has proven him right, at least in a commercial sense.
Just as you shouldn't be put off writing your story because of the imagined feelings of some snowflake reader, neither should you chicken out from reaching into the damaged places in your own soul. If you're an adult, then bad things have, at some point in your life, happened to you. In fact I'd go a bit farther than that, although it's only speculation, and suggest that if you're a writer, you're probably damaged in some way. The hurt, the fear, the anger of past suffering are like fuel to the engine of your writing. If, for instance, which God forbid, you're a rape survivor, then at some point you are probably going to want to write about that, and your own experience is going to give you a particular authenticity when you do so.
This, of course, means that in the course of your work you'll have to confront your own demons, those long-buried monsters that you'd consciously forgotten. This can be painful and frightening. And you know what? You need to suck it up, because, along with copy-editing, that's one of the painful aspects of writiing.