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Writing on the Radical Edge
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2013
Outlining
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2013
Outlining

This post is adapted from a talk I gave on Saturday, August 24, at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island. The weekend was amazing, and I got to talk about empowering women writers. What a privilege. My fellow “Hedgetalk” plenary speakers were Amy Richards, Katie Orenstein, and Hannah Tinti. It was truly an honor to be included on the roster alongside these awesome, talented women who are out effecting change in the world.

***

Over the course of my 14 years working with authors, I’ve shepherded over one thousand books to publication. Since I’ve worked almost exclusively with women since 2004, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern, a “worthiness crisis” I know to be more prevalent among women writers than their male counterparts.  This crisis is characterized by a deep distrust—that the writing is good, that the work deserves to be published, that the author herself is “good enough.”

The worthiness crisis can strike at any time. It can happen when you’re in progress, once your manuscript is complete, when you’re close to publication, once the book is out in the world. This last group are the lucky ones. It’s too late to get stuck, and you can’t do anything to sabotage your own efforts. But when the crisis starts early in the process, or if or when you’re calling the shots about whether or not to publish, the results can be particularly stalling, or worse, they can put an end to your project.

I titled this talk “Writing on the Radical Edge” because the topic of our day on Saturday was “empower,” and because I first heard the term “radical edge” from David Whyte, who in fact lives on Whidbey Island.

In preparation for the talk, I listed to David’s CD, “Midlife and The Great Unknown,” and I want to share something he says:

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are completely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss; when you have the right job; when the car payment has been made; when the kids are through college; when you’re on your deathbed; when you are dead. It will be certainly easier then.

The perfect conditions, of course, never come. When I was writing my book, I posted a YouTube video of my excuses. It was meant to be fun-loving, poking a bit of fun at myself, but my reasons for doing it were earnest: I’d seen people—many in fact—let go of their commitment or dream to write because of all the other things in their lives that they allowed to come first. Walking on the radical edge is about taking a “courageous step,” and sometimes that step involves putting ourselves and our own needs first.

On Friday, Kamy Wicoff shared with the Hedgebrook group how she decided in 2011 that she needed to step away from She Writes for a while if she was ever going to complete her book. She was afraid to take that step, but she put it out to the community to take care of She Writes while she took a sabbatical, and the community—all of you—responded. She had 70 offers to guest curate the newsletter so that she could step away. This was a courageous step that required her to choose herself over the community—for a while.

The radical edge of writing, for me, is when women writers say I am worth it. I deserve it. Hedgebrook is radical for just this reason. They provide space—and meals—for writers in residence as a gift. No strings attached. And although it’s getting more competitive because there are more applicants every year, they grant 40 women this gift annually, with no expectations. (Note that their deadline to apply for 2014 is Sept 4. There’s still time!)

Hedgebrook mirrors back to its writers a simple message: You are worth it. You deserve this. Dorothy Allison has shared many times that she’s struggled to let the staff at Hedgebrook take care of her. They refer to what they do as “radical hospitality.” A writer in residence is not to take her dishes to the sink. Not to have to tend after anything. This experience is apparently quite emotional for many women who have only ever taken care of others.  

It's not only a powerful experience to allow yourself to be taken care of in this way, it’s also radical. It is radical to let go; radical to be yourself; radical to be able to turn things over; to be able to not be in complete control. It is radical to accept help; it was radical of Kamy to decide to ask her community for help because she didn’t want to run SW every day and instead wanted to work on her novel.

It’s easy to rationalize, I’ll write when my life gets easier. I’ll write when the kids are older. I’ll write after I leave my job. As David says: on my deathbed; I’ll do it when I’m dead. When I first heard those words I was tempted to laugh at them, but in fact he’s quite serious, and there’s a devastation attached to a life built around contingency, isn’t there?

We all know people who have dreams they never acted on; plans they made but never executed; books they wanted to write but never wrote. Or parts of books written but later abandoned. There are many reasons for not walking the radical edge. And I’m not suggesting it’s an easy place to stay.

We are bombarded by inner and outer critics who fuel the “worthiness crisis.” These are the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, but also there are real people we know who dampen our enthusiasm and squash our dreams. They’re the parents who can’t understand the time we spend on writing; the spouse who doesn’t see the value; the agents and editors who tell us, yeah, it’s good, but I can’t sell it. From here, the only way through is to find your own true compass.

Mark Nepo is a poet I admire and have the privilege of working with. I included this poem as the epigraph of my book because, although it’s a universal human experience he writes about, the emotions and message pertain to the writing life.

Here is the poem:

Thinking Like a Butterfly

Monday I was told I was good.

I felt relieved.

Tuesday I was ignored.

I felt invisible.

Wednesday I was snapped at.

I began to doubt myself.

On Thursday I was rejected.

Now I was afraid.

On Saturday I was thanked

for being me. My soul relaxed.

On Sunday I was left alone

till the part of me that can’t

be influenced grew tired of

submitting and resisting.

Monday I was told I was good.

By Tuesday I got off the wheel.

 

Pay attention to what happened on Sunday. Getting to the place in yourself that is beyond influence is the radical edge. This is the part of you that tends to who you are. It’s a place from which you can move forward authentically because you don’t care whether you’re told that you’re good or bad. It’s a place where your own excuses don’t matter. It’s a place where you’re set free. Where no one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a space unencumbered by accomplishments or productivity. Mark speaks of his own writing practice as “entering the space.” Sometimes entering the space needs to be eased into. You might meditate, or write about what’s right in front of you. You might listen to music, or engage in another form of creative expression: art, music, dance. Places like Hedgebrook offer an experience of what happens when “the space” has no expectations attached, and it can be difficult to emulate this in your daily writing practice. And yet it’s important to carry with us the invitation and the awareness that the radical edge is available to us no matter where we are. Pay attention to the contingencies you may be putting on your writing, and think about what needs to happen to take your next courageous step.

 

And a question for all of you here at She Writes: In what ways have you walked the radical edge in your own writing?

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Comments
  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    I was interviewing a male writer some time ago and was struck for some time after by his absolute confidence in his worthiness as a writer and in the worthiness of his writing; I prodded, had there been no doubt at any point in the process?...no. I couldn't relate to it; four books and some in, I am still wracked by doubt and feelings of unworthiness. I never thought of that worthiness issue as a gendered thing but when you mentioned it, I immediately remembered that interview. As for the rest, I can definitely relate to the difficulty asking for help, needing it, accepting it; never thought of it as a woman thing so much as a me-thing. So, yeah, insights, revelations in this post. My favourite line: "Getting to the place in yourself that is beyond influence is the radical edge." Some days, I think I do live on the radical edge because I do colour outside the margins and live my choices whether they make sense to others or not, and I have dared driven by my mantra to feel the fear but do it anyway. Some days, though, the days of doubt and unworthiness and seeing the obstacles instead of the ways through, over or around them, I realize I have a long way to go still to that place of total surrender. Ever a work in progress.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your sharing and wise perspective, @Pam. This is so true—"You really have to believe in yourself and have faith."

  • Pam McGaffin Promoting

    Thank you so much for this post. It's comforting to know I'm not alone in my sometimes paralyzing self-doubt. I keep managing to push through it and get a little more done on my novel, but I have days when I think I'm absolutely delusional and that people are actually snickering behind my back. Writing is so solitary, and the validations come few and far between. You really have to believe in yourself and have faith. If there's one thing I've learned it is that not writing is harder than writing. On those down days, I tell myself, "Just write the next sentence." Then I'll inevitably get back into the zone and write more, and it never fails to make me feel better.

  • Julie Luek

    That last paragraph was bliss to read. I had an urge to just shout, "AMEN!" It resonated right down to my soul. Thanks for sharing your words. Bliss. 

  • Tammy Flanders Hetrick

    Wish I had been there in person. Reassuring, validating, and inspiring.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Karen. Yes! Good luck with the application too!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for this inspiring post.  It is so important to believe in myself and own my identity as a writer.When asked what my occupation is, I do say that I am a writer, then list my "day" jobs (held to pay the bills between gigs).

    I will apply to the Hedgebrook residency program, since I am working on a MS closer to my heart than the published book that I have authored. :0)  

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Enid and @Patricia. You two, too! Thanks for sharing such personal sentiments. It's so helpful to other readers. This is so universal.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Laura, that you for this self-revealing and honest comment. I think we are always looking for ways to make things easier and to shed and I think you're so right. It starts with shedding our self-limiting beliefs. Welcome back to the grid!

  • What a wonderful post. Some days I'm filled with self-doubt and others, not so much. When I'm getting rejection letters from agents who've only read my query letter  - those are the worst days. When I'm editing my manuscript, that is when I know I can write and I'm so proud of myself. So I waffle back and forth, i.e. good then bad then good again. This post will be a great help to me in the future and I appreciate your sharing it.

  • Enid Powell

    Recently, I've been clearing out old files - really really old files and found one with acceptance letters from publications that had accepted some of my short stories.  One editor, from Yankee Magazine, said that my story "Directions" was the best mother/daughter story she'd ever read. The editor from Seventeen, who had turned it down,  said they loved the story but it was too recondite for their readers.  (I was so proud of knowing the word.)  But I have absolutely no memory of these letters or the praise.  I had no idea I was even worthy of such praise.  I am now shocked, and upset even furious that I so surprised.  A few years ago I did self publish my published and unpublished short stories, mostly for family who would throw away all my papers after I'm gone, but would probably keep a book.  I did get a lovely note from one of the judges or readers from the Writers Digest book contest to which  I'd submitted the book.  She wrote that she loved the stories and singled out a few of them and hoped I'd win.  I didn't.  I wasn't surprised.  I still write - and teach writing workshops (I love teaching), but now my excuse for not trying to market the book, or send out more stories, is - what's the point after all these years?  And the best answer I've come up with so far is - you never know.  I just wish I'd believed sooner that I really had a chance 

    Nevertheless, I'll never give up writing.  I only  gave up on me.

  • Niki Tulk

    Fabulous. Just tweeted a link to this. So, so true. Y'all, read Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" to read more about making art for and from all the authentic reasons ...

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Linda, thanks for your comment. @Terry, perhaps it would be good for you to walk the radical edge here and question your default thinking about your publishing path, though self-publishing is a good choice---depending on what you want and how you go about it. I do want to point out that agents don't charge, though. They just take a 15% commission. So they only make money if you make money. Publishing your book in any form is a radical act!

  • Linda Rosen

    Your paragraph that begins with "we are bombarded by inner and outer critics" resonated with me. Sometimes I wonder which are worse, the inner or outer ones, and inner always wins. It's much easier to turn off the "outer" critics and then walk the "radical edge." Though walking that edge does take having gumption - and persistence.  Today was a good day. I hiked the edge, but tomorrow could throw me right off again. When I do fall off, I'll remember this post. Thank you for it, and for the community of women writers on this site.  

  • Yes, the worthiness issue has surfaced here. A friend asked whether I would submit my next book to a bona-fide publisher or continue to self-publish, and when I said I would continue as is, she asked me why. I said I didn't think a publisher would want to invest in my story, and I could not invest in an agent's up-front costs. That answer came so quickly it sounded staged, yet I'd never been asked 'why' before, and hadn't thought my answer through. I have no idea what an agent would cost, as I've never considered being worth one. I write what I've lived. Those who know me, or know of what I write, tell me I write well. I believe them. But I don't believe that 'writing well' will catch the eye of a publisher. I don't write 'hot' scenes, I don't use profanity, and I write primarily to record the events that lead me to a new instance of growth. I write to discover. I write to share discovery, and to acknowledge realizations. I wish I could say I write to earn money for vacations, but truth be told, I'm not a vacation kind of person. I'm a 'medically retired' schoolteacher who misses the classroom and wants to continue to share life's lessons. It would be nice to earn some money, but right now I almost break even. My writing costs me only postage.  Are my books, my thoughts, worth sharing more widely? Do I have a voice confident enough to withstand disagreements and criticism? Am I worthy of a 'bona-fide' publisher's investment? I may never know.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Marilyn. I think that the "I'm not good enough"/"no one will want to read it"/"who cares?" is the most pervasive inner critic women face. Maybe if we realize we all have it it will help us to release its grip on us a bit. Good to *see* you here!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    So awesome, @Jessica! We're so proud of your novel over at SWP and it's great to know that SW has been instrumental. 

  • Marilyn Bousquin

    Hi, Brooke. Thank you so much for posting this article. Over the last few weeks, I've been interviewing women writers in my efforts to better understand the internalized conditioning that women writers are up against every time we sit down to write. Woman after woman has said that one of her fears about her writing is that no one will want to read her story because it will not be seen as worthy. This does not surprise me in a culture in which women's experiences are considered small or "taboo." I see this internalized attitude toward our own subjects as a form of silencing that extends from the broader culture. Indeed, when unchecked it keeps many stories untold. A definite "worthiness crisis." Well, Brooke, I've missed you and hope this finds you well and writing! All best, Marilyn

  • Jessica Vealitzek

    Though I've been writing almost all my life, writing a novel was contingent on so many things that it just became a general "someday" plan. There were many little steps along the way toward putting writing nearer the top of my priorities, but honestly I credit She Writes with pushing me to the edge and taking myself seriously as a writer. It was the first online community I joined (I wasn't even on Facebook yet) and the welcome and support I received gave me the confidence to keep going.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Diane. Thanks so much for sharing this! You are walking the radical edge. And yes, @Cindy. Each day is different. Thanks for sharing your post with the community.

  • Diane LeBow

    Indeed, Brooke, this is so true for many women. It's taken me years to "walk on the edge" with my writing although I did it, as you know, in much of the rest of my life, traveling alone, etc. My best writing happens when I get to this edge. It feels sometimes like going out on a tightrope. Working with you on my book has been very important for me especially in this regard.