December 16th, 2008

Carrie Now

Facing Our Writing Fears

This week I'm going to post about FACING OUR WRITING FEARS.

One of my writing fears, by the way, is forgetting what week I'm posting here. And, um, yeah... Since it's Tuesday, I obviously have just faced that fear. Thank you Sarah Aronson for reminding me!

When the Small is Universal


It’s okay to have detailed settings that aren’t in:


  1. New York
  2. Chicago
  3. L.A.
  4. Paris


Not everyone lives there. When I teach writing a lot of my students have been afraid to give details about the setting if it’s set in a small town, or a medium-sized city, or (if you live in Maine like we do) an Unorganized Territory.



One of my unpublished adult education students who was about 87 years old actually said to me, “I don’t want to be labeled a regional writer my entire life because I wrote about a small town in Maine. That’s why I set it in New York.”


I am in love with her by the way. Any unpublished 87-year-old who is worried about her writing career kicks coffee mugs with her level of awesome.


But she’s also worried for a silly reason. That reason has nothing to do with her being unpublished or older. It has to do with her failure to be brave. It has to do with her ruining her story’s truth instead of embracing it.  By worrying about her career and marketability, by worrying about labels instead of the story’s truth, she degrades it and makes the story much more shallow.


Novelist Richard Russo wrote, “Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox – that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.”


Richard Russo wrote a lot about upstate New York towns. Larry McMurty wrote a lot about Texas. William Faulker wrote about the south. Mark Twain… You get the idea, right?


Are any of those guys (Wait. Why did I list only men?) considered regional writers in a negative way? No. And the reason is that they are good writers, really good writers who use their specific locations to build the world of their story. The place of their stories is entwined with the characters of their stories. It’s what makes their stories more than good. It’s what makes their stories brilliant.


As Russo says, “In the end the only compelling reason to pay more attention to place, to exterior setting, is the belief, the faith, that place and its people are intertwined, that place is character, and that to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people. Such faith is not easy to come by or to sustain in this historical period.”


Russo tips:


Describe selectively

See clearly from the start

Create distance

Use research selectively

That faith may not be easy to attain, but it is so important. It is VERY easy to give in to fear especially right now given the shifting at many publishing houses, the economy, the overall gloominess of early December, but you have to fight it. You have to set your stories where they need to be set. You have to believe in the details that make that story's truth. You have to surrender yourself to the tiny details that make your story sing. You can't be afraid to write. You can't be afraid to write a story about your home town. As much as I love Manhattan not EVERYTHING happens there; not every story is set there.

So do not be afraid to describe and see clearly and write the world you want to write.

Do NOT be afraid to write.

If you are that's when we all lose.

(I'll be sourcing all the material at the end of the week. Don't worry!)