John Cheever called the life of a serious writer “quite a dangerous career.”
Years ago, when I first decided to take up writing seriously I felt hesitant and scared. I thought that being scared was my shameful weakness. A weakness that I wanted to keep a secret at first. Especially at the time I started writing my first book.
I had enrolled in a novel writing course online and as a last assignment I had to write the first three chapters of my first novel. No matter how many novel ideas I had in mind, the one that kept bugging me was what I was scared of the most. To write my story. To write what civil war did to me and to those around me.
Now I had read about writers being anxious every time they started on a new project. Besides the ordinary questions of “can I pull it off” or “do I have anything to say”, I was mostly afraid of what people’s reactions to it would be. I was about to write a novel about ordinary people living the terrors of civil war. I could not do that without writing about the different militias that were on the streets of the city and everywhere in the country, about the different religious and political groups that were terrorizing the civilians. Every word that I was about to put on paper to be seen by others would be subject to scrutiny- not just of anonymous readers but of friends, spouses, parents and anonymous people who were caught in it.
Should I mention any names when things were not quite right yet in the country? I spent so many sleepless nights thinking about this problem. In the words of Toni Morrison:
“When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information.”
In the end I asked myself, “Does it really matter where you come from, or who you are, when a gunmen is pointing a gun at you? Does it really matter to which political or religious group the gunman belongs? He is pointing a gun at you, he’s the villain, the devil and you are the victim no matter what.” We are only human.
So I decided that I would not mention any religion, nor any political group, in my book. I would write just about gunmen terrorizing innocent civilians. It was only then that I could write the book. After all war is powerful and as universal a language as love is. Henry Miller wrote:
“I prefer a man who is unskillful but who has something to say, who is dealing himself one time on every page.”
And then came another worry of what people would think about me once they read the writing. Ralph Keyes writes:
I recently watched a successful young author waiting to talk and sign books for an overflow crowd at a Dayton, Ohio, bookstore. This book- a first novel- had been reviewed favorably in prominent media. Its author had just returned from making publicity appearances in New York. “I’m glad I did New York before this,” she whispered nervously to a friend. “As kind of a warm up.”
“That’s funny,” laughed the friend, “considering New York a warm-up for Dayton.”
“But I didn’t know anyone in New York,” explained the writer as she surveyed the crowd. “Here I see lots of familiar faces. There’s my mother, my grandmother, my sister. Oh, God.”