I’ve worked for a long time on several traits of good writing. I can pretty reliably produce correctly-formed sentences featuring correctly-spelled words. I try to be clear: to make sure we don’t subsist too long on pronouns without referring back to the noun in question, to connect “it” or “this” occasionally to secure referents.
I try to be specific, not merely by loading up with detail but by choosing the details that matter. I’ve learned to listen to people talk, and to replicate dialogue in ways that sound like their speakers. As one friend just wrote to me, “All the larger themes are created from the situations, conversations and philosophy of the story.
I try to be true. To places, to times, to ways of life. To the ways that people bond with one another, and the ways those bonds are broken. This truth is always relative. It’s my truth. That’s part of what we mean by a writer’s “voice.” And therein lies danger.
Last week, I had a new story come into my head. That’s usually cause for celebration, but this one isn’t. And I’ll tell you why.
Stories usually come from a bunch of places at once, a confluence of several things that have composted into a fertile humus. So here are a few experiences.
- I just finished writing a book featuring a working-class woman who’d been fully capable of doing a working-class “man’s job,” for thirty years.
- I served on our Town’s Selectboard for six years, learning the details of purchasing road salt and repairing a grader, the cost of a dump truck and the cost of having it significantly damaged during a seemingly everyday plowing tour.
- I know the everyday politics of road work: of some people complaining about improvements to their rustic roads, and others complaining about how their dirt road falls apart every spring. About how concrete contractors compete to pour culvert walls, how paving contractors compete to grind and blacktop a couple of miles of state highway. About how some bids come in with spreadsheets and cover letters, and other bids come in handwritten on a sheet torn from a legal pad, with illustrative diagrams in the margins. About the ways that a Town job represents safety, with reliable income and health insurance—and about how providing that scarce safety to one new employee causes resentment among all of the others who might have done the job. About the ways that the grudges harden like the roads.
- I currently serve as our Town’s Emergency Management Director, and last week, we were going through our Vulnerable Populations Protocol. And I thought of all the hermits, the drunks, the immobilized, those in need of nearly-regular nearly-emergency care, the victims of domestic abuse—all of whom would be dangerously isolated if their road failed or their electricity failed for a few days.
And all of those things suddenly bonded through chemical reaction into a story. A story that I know how to tell. A story that, half a year from now, would have come together into truth.
A story that maybe I shouldn’t write.
The better we are at writing, the more precise and more truthful we become. And that brings with it a great responsibility. If I wrote that book and sent it to you—in Cleveland or in Baltimore, in Boston or in Atlanta—you would find it powerful. It would raise important questions about gender, about loyalty, about hard work in hard conditions—and simultaneously, it would just be an engaging story about engaging people. I know how to do that.
But if I shared that book with anyone here in my town, it would be wrenching and disruptive. They would imagine that they were seeing themselves and their neighbors. They would believe me, and thus would believe that I was telling a true story of identifiable characters that they know… or that they are. They would try to pick apart the pseudonyms, would imagine that they know exactly which family I was talking about at the end of Tinkham’s Ridge, the family with the innumerable, half-feral children and the scatter of failed car projects and collapsed outbuildings.
(Even that sentence—regardless of the fact that there is no Tinkham’s Ridge anywhere that I know of, even though I’m not picturing any particular, knowable family on any particular, knowable road when I wrote that—would be explosive, because all the local readers would have their own nominees for exactly which family I was referring to. It’s a composite, made up of two dozen dead-end dirt roads and half a dozen landscape features and a homestead that I drive through every Monday in a town thirty miles from here, but all of the local readers would see it as a nameable specific.)
That’s what happens when you’re a good writer. You become a refined fuel, which is a hazard as well as a gift.
If you’ve ever been behind a tanker truck on the freeway, you’ve seen some diamond-shaped placards on the back and sides, that look like this:
If you’ve seen a movie or a Netflix series in the past few years, you’ve seen markers like this at the beginning of the episode:
All of these are warnings about the contents of what you might encounter. And maybe I need to provide some kind of related system to alert specific people of the specific discomforts they’ll come upon.
I have a few books that I’ve given to individual friends in town, but that I have not given to our local library. I don’t want to take the chance that some unassuming person might come across them and be burned. The stories aren’t intended to be harmful, just as the truck filled with fertilizer isn’t intended to blow up on the interstate, but it could, and maybe everyone should know that.
One of the benefits of my gift-giving publishing strategy is that I can try to calibrate which hazmats can be handled by which readers. But A) I could occasionally be wrong, B) innocents might stumble across it anyway, and C) there might be negative side effects beyond those that my internal studies have already determined.
So I’m sitting on this new story. I might never write it at all. And that’s a brand new place for me to be.