Write about what scares you…

I just replied to an email from a classmate from this past summer. Where he lives, the ecology is having a hell of a shock, it’s just drying up — the main river system in his country is drying up — and people still go out and hose down their driveways and farmers are irrigating, and no more rains this year, and forest fires like mad.

And my scattered advice was, as it turned out, to write about it. I don’t know if I believe, not just how much, but also whether I believe it at all, this idea that books can strongly change how people think. It seems to me that most people insulate themselves into whatever selection of books fits with their belief system already. But I do think we write more powerfully about what scares us, and when I think about Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, it certainly feels as if that book had helped to inoculate me against certain kinds of ideas early on, and put a right fear and hatred of totalitarianism/authoritarianism in me.

I don’t know, probably nothing but the bare necessity of facing reality will get us to face our Greenhouse Nightmare, but, when we do face it, maybe all the concatenation of ideas that will have gelled since, oh, the 80s and 90s, will matter then. Maybe it’ll give us a framework to grapple with, some conceptual tools and references to rely upon.

And anyway, what scares us, matters to us. It’s hardly surprising that writing about what scares one — what scares one in a sober, sensible way, not in the panicky aftershock of a news report — might be better writing. Caring about a subject makes us more attentive to all kinds of things, if, at least, we’re good writers to begin with, like this friend of mine definitely is.

5 thoughts on “Write about what scares you…

  1. These are some really good insights. I’m with you on doubting whether or not books can strongly change how people think. The key phrase for me is “strongly change.” Subtle change, solidfying existing ideas, seeing something in a different light–books can do all of these. But strongly change? IMHO unless a person is already wanting to change, a book isn’t going to do it.

    While writing about what scares us CAN lead to better writing (1984 is a great example), I think a lot of writers make the mistake of shortchanging the story to highlight their viewpoint, which to me is a huge turn-off even if I agree with them. This is NOT to say that we shouldn’t write about things that scare us, just that the danger of being ‘preachy’ is greater when we are writing about something that scares us. Because it matters.

  2. This reminds me of the short explanation Octavia Butler gave after her story, “Bloodchild” in the aforementioned titled collection. She said she partly wrote the story as a way to “ease an old fear” of insect bites, in particular that of the botfly. “When I have to deal with something that disturbs me as much as the botfly did, I write about it.” (Butler 31).

    When I care too much for a subject or character I’m writing about–that’s when it gets preachy for me. My fear of some topics causes an odd detachment from the subject; in some ways, that distance is helpful and the material that develops out of that space is more sound and authentic.

  3. Hmmmmmm. That sounds familiar too… when I am scared of something, I usually write about it, but in such an indirect way that it becomes unclear I’m writing about the part that scares me. There’s a lot of energy derived from the fear, but it’s not directed exactly at the the original fear-impetus, so, I hope, I get less preachy and more into examining things.

  4. I believe in what you say, Gord. Case in point is Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”–he wrote about something that clearly scared him: the way in which food is processed in America, and Americans’ relationship with food. And not just with fast food but the way we raise our cattle, and treat our livestock and the way in which we use tons of fossil fuel transporting food all around.

    And he’s inducing change. Whole Foods is now featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables at each of their stores (each store manager/buyer has leeway to source their own locally grown produce). We’re eating more grassfed beef. Oh, I wno’t summarize the book, but it’s great.

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