When I was little and would leave my mother's side, she would always say, "Be careful." And I was, mostly. Those words were my invisible tattoo. I paid attention to the rules. We didn't have sidewalks in our neighborhood, and when I walked my sisters to school, I made sure we stayed a safe distance off the busy road, a few feet onto the grass or around trees, out of danger. In seventh grade and through high school I attended Catholic school. One of my boldest moves was roll the waistband of my uniform skirt a few times to make it shorter than the rules--and nuns--allowed. I took care. Even now I have to hold myself back from using those words as a mantra: be careful. I say the phrase too often to the young people in my life. If I thought my cats would heed, I would say it to them, to keep them from falling off the high, narrow beams they love to explore. In certain areas of my life, I am protective--even over-protective.
But not writing.
When it came to writing, I encourage recklessness. This comes from experience. Writing my first novel, Angels All Over Town, I drew on my life. It's fiction--not memoir, not autobiography--but emotionally my book was very close to what I knew to be true at the time I wrote it. It's a story of sisters who had considered themselves inseparable, and then things come along to separate them: mainly love and loss. They fall in love with men who don't necessarily get along; their father dies. They grow up, and it hurts. These facts mirrored reality in my life.
If I'd been careful, everyone would have gotten along. Everyone would have been nice to each other. The protagonist wouldn't have told the messy truth about her father's alcoholism. The sisters would have been chaste instead of falling dangerously in love with Australian sailors on the Newport docks. The mother would have spouted words of wisdom instead of isolating herself at her easel with watercolors and cups of milky tea.
Fiction requires bravery. Writing that novel allowed me to see my characters, those three sisters, with some measure of detachment. They didn't climb the Matterhorn or sail the Atlantic single-handed--they lived in Newport and made their way in life, and in small ways and large ways learned about their world, and about each other, and, most scarily, about themselves. They faced their father's death. They were wild. They drank, but even more, the oldest sister recognized the way their father's drinking had affected the family. I was in my twenties when I wrote that book. What did I actually know back then? More than I thought, apparently.
If you're a writer, write the deepest and truest you can. Go close to the edge. Play in traffic. Sit at your desk every morning and face the page. Write what alarms you. Don't censor yourself or worry about what your friends--or your husband, or your mother, or your high school teacher--will think. If your dreams are haunted by a terrible family secret, and you feel it's your duty to keep it under wraps, don't. Write about it. Write down every detail. Tell the secret. Write it from your heart.
You can always burn the pages, but I hope you won't.
Sometimes writers hold themselves back by comparing themselves unfavorably to their idols--or their peers, or their younger or older or imaginary better selves. This is a waste of time and spirit; it will do nothing but hold you back. All you can do is face the page. "Believe in yourself" might sound corny and New Age and dumb, but it's not. It's the way to go. If you feel called to write, then you must write. It's nice to have support and affirmation from outside, but that's not always possible or forthcoming. So you have to give it to yourself.
This doesn't mean you should consider shoddy work to be brilliant. The Rules of Grammar are not made to be broken. Read The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. Read books you love. Read a lot. Remember that thinking about writing, dreaming about writing, talking about writing, attending workshops about writing is not the same as writing. The only way to write is to sit down and write. Write for hours every day if possible. Don't hold yourself back. Tell secrets. Make up stories. Tell the truth--or don't. Be reckless.
I dare you. There's nothing more thrilling, and I want that for you.