I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intimacy it takes to write.
I’ve been re-reading the lectures of Robert Olen Butler and he talks about how honest writing doesn’t come from thinking or ideas, but from feeling and dreaming. This is a difficult concept for many of us because there is a lot to think about when we write. But it’s possible we protect ourselves through that thinking and never really dig deep into the white-hot center of our work.
Butler quotes Akira Kurosawa, who says, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”
There’s two ways I interpret this quote in regards to my writing. The first is to be brave. To face the intimacy it takes to write. I think we write to explore the human condition, but often we don’t want to look at the hard truths that make our characters who they are. Or we don’t want to let our characters move honestly through their worlds. We protect them. In many ways we are protecting ourselves. We avert our eyes, because really looking means facing secrets about ourselves. These can be personal secrets or larger truths about humanity that challenge our beliefs. Writing forces us to look at issues we may not be ready to face.
It’s scary. It takes courage.
My second interpretation of Kurosawa’s quote is about experience. We interact with our world sensually through our bodies: the taste of papaya, the texture of soft gooey fruit, the tremble of a lip in the face of bad news. The writing I love to read (and strive to write) grounds us in our bodies and its interaction with the physical world. To never avert your eyes is to be in the body of your character from moment-to-moment. It means never glazing over the emotion, but being present to feel the world through your character’s skin. It’s easy to analyze when we write and pull back and summarize. The second we step back and look at the character from the outside, discussing emotion rather than allowing a character to sensually feel it, we’ve averted our eyes from the experience and are labeling it. Controlling it. I think we do this because to truly feel something with our character means we must make ourselves vulnerable.
Robert Olen Butler says: “If I say art doesn’t come from the mind, it comes from the place you dream, you may say, ‘Well, I wake up screaming in the night. I don’t want to go into my dreams, thank you very much. I don’t want to go to the white-hot center; I’ve spent my life staying out of there.”… Here’s the tough part: you have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place … whatever scared the hell out of you down there – and there’s plenty – you have to go in there; down to the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away.”
I believe there’s a point in your writing when you will be ready to do this. It’s not something anyone can force on you. It’s your choice. But when you decide to open up and enter this dark place – it will scare you. You might reject it and want to stop writing.
Be fearless. Face the intimacy and bravery your work demands. Don’t avert your eyes. This is the place where your best work will come from.
Photo Credit: Beth Retro Photography, Digital Vision