Climbing Mount Everest Page by Page: The Risks of the Writing Life

As I write this, I’m somewhere between L.A. and New York, sitting next to my sleeping husband. It’s the first time ever that we’ve taken a flight together, without our son. We’ve each taken countless flights solo, and we’ve flown together as a family (the crazy thinking being that if we go down, at least we’re all together). We’ve even boarded two separate flights to the same place, reuniting at the airport in some far-flung destination. But never have we sat together, scrunched into our seats, the two of us high above the planet, as somewhere below us, our 13-year-old, watches a football game.

When it comes to taking risks, I’ve grown more pragmatic over the years. Statistically speaking, we’re in better shape on a plane than if we were driving, or even taking a walk down a country road. Risk, and the calculations, rumination, and determinations surrounding it—whether avoiding it or embracing it—has been a tape looping through my head for so long that I don’t know who I would be if I weren't thinking about it. I am a mama bear, a wife, a friend, a teacher, and I am always thinking of how to keep myself and those I love safe from any imaginable harm.

But when it comes to the writing life––the way I have spent most days for the past 20 years––risk is what it’s all about. Though I am not and probably never will be a physical risk-taker, when I sit down to write, I am as intrepid as a mountain climber scaling the heights of Mount Everest. When I embark on a new writing project, fear is my constant companion. But a writer must learn to embrace her fear. A voice whispers (or shouts!) in the head of every writer facing the blank page: You can’t do it! This is stupid! Who do you think you are? So-and-so did it better! How embarrassing! The voice assumes many disguises, but it is there––make no mistake about it––to stop you in your tracks. Don’t dare, it is saying. Don’t risk.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books that play it safe: Conventional narratives, characters whose edges are smoothed out, made palatable. Can I just admit it? These books bore me. They’re like eating muesli when I want a charred, juicy steak. I want to read about messiness. I don’t need the pieces to fit together in fiction or in memoir—after all, when do the pieces ever fit together in life? I want to encounter people who feel, who do the unexpected, who think human thoughts—no matter how dark and flawed and uncomfortable. I want to be reminded of my own inner landscape, my own complex humanity. I want to connect—with the book, with myself. In a recent re-reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I was amazed, as I always am, by the way that Woolf renders Clarissa Dalloway almost transparent, as if we were watching an MRI of her internal life while she goes about her daily business; the inner and the outer are equally accessible. I felt this thrill of discovery, too, when reading Jess Walter’s novel Beautiful Ruins, in which he takes risk after creative risk but somehow never loses control of his taut narrative. Walter writes as if no one has ever said no to him. No—he writes as if he has learned to stop saying no to himself.

If we are to write work that is alive, we have to be willing to head out on that high wire. Every day, we have to place one foot, then another, on that thin, quivering line, and let go of our ruminations and questions about what might happen. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe I’ll waste my time and precious energy on a piece of prose that will be dead on arrival. But how else am I supposed to discover what’s in there, in the teeming, writhing darkness? In the frozen tundra?

The writing life can be lonely, certainly solitary, quite possibly filled with indignity and rejection. People look at you funny. They ask when you’re going to get a real job. You’re constantly turning yourself inside out, sifting through miles of debris for a nugget of gold. You bare yourself to the world, with no guarantee that the world will notice, or care. There is only one reason to do this: because you have to. Because a still, small voice inside of you is insisting that you have a story to tell. If you heed that voice it will lead you to scary places, and to beautiful ones. It will show you yourself, and what most matters to you. It will be your beacon and your mirror, your torture and your salvation. It owes you nothing, but it will teach you everything. You will learn to gather up all that is within you and find a shape for it on the page. That shape may not be pretty, or particularly polite. It may be frightening, or ugly, or mortifying. So what? It is asking you to reveal something essential about what it means to be alive on this planet, and in so doing, show us ourselves. This is literature’s job.

A tall order? Perhaps. But why else write? Why else show up, on a daily basis, our pens poised over the page, our fingers hovering over the keyboard, our minds on fire, our hearts breaking, hardly able to contain the surges of energy coursing through our bodies, the resistance that makes us want to leap up and go out to breakfast, or plant tulips, or shop online for a new black sweater? Why else put ourselves through it? We are a particular breed, those of us who are called to the page. The risks we take are not obvious––our journey is an inward one, invisible to the naked eye. What’s more, there is no goal post, no flag at the top of the mountain. There is only, as the choreographer Martha Graham once put it, a “queer, divine dissatisfaction” in the very act of shaping a story on the page, of transforming chaos—both internal and external—into art.

So, if we choose to sit alone in our rooms, engaged in this solitary life—a life filled with uncertainty, with constant self-doubt, and with risks of a very practical sort (there’s no one to give us a pension and a retirement plan, after all)—then we had better be sure that we’re spending it all and holding back nothing. This is no time for playing it safe. The writing life is not a game for sissies. We take a deep breath. Squeeze our eyes shut. Take a running leap into the unknown. We give it up to the page—not just when it feels good, not just when we feel in control of it, but every single time.

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Dani Shapiro is the author of eleven books including Signal Fires, Inheritance, and Still Writing—and the host and creator of the hit podcast Family Secrets.

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