One of the participants in last Friday’s Mayborn book manuscript workshop, Carol Harper, asked me a question via e-mail today.
Does courage equal good writing?
I love this question because nobody’s ever asked it of me before, and in all the years I’ve been pondering writing and talking about writing, I’ve never heard it discussed.
Carol raised the question, I believe, because in our workshop we discussed several memoirs which covered intimate, personal matters. There was quite a bit of talk about the courageousness of the participants.
Perhaps such talk, and the word courage, is cheap. It’s like I often point out to new writers–they need to get away from the generalities and into the specifics. Courage, to be sure, is a generality. It’s also the word Dan Rather used to sign off his newscasts with until everyone reacted with such hilarity and mirth that he had to quit.
Maybe that right there tells us something about how we view courage. But back to the original question. Does courage equal good writing? Another reason Carol might have asked me that question is that in talking to an agent about the memoir form, he said something along the lines of what is important to the writer is not necessarily of interest to the reader.
So, what takes enormous courage for the writer to put down on paper does not automatically become good writing.
Here’s what I believe (you knew it was coming eventually):
I believe that every time any one of us sits down to put words on paper, it is an act of courage. If we are sitting down to write about painful personal memories or events, it takes even more bravery. It is hard, damn hard, to put yourself on the page for the world to see–and judge, because you know they will–over and over again.
Writing in and of itself is an act of courage.
But once we’ve mustered the strength and valor to face the blank screen or the empty page, there’s another act of courage required, and that is the courage to learn how to best present the information so that it is of interest to the reader. That’s a different kind of courage, the courage to learn and change and transform what doesn’t work on the page into what does.
Transforming what doesn’t work to what does is the life work of some of us, maybe all of us. I like to think that practicing on paper makes it easier.
Bottom line? No, courage does not equal good writing per se. But courage is a necessary precursor to all good writing. So in a way, courage does equal good writing.
And maybe the word courage isn’t so cheap after all.