For as long as I’ve taken writing seriously and began gobbling up the advice of other writers, I’ve come across the call to “write close to the bone.” Write in the spaces that are raw, write where it hurts, write where it scares you, write about what terrifies.
I’d nod my head and say, “yes, of course.”
But what did it mean?
Fellow writer, blogger, and Bigger Picture Blogs reader, Shannon Lell, recently turned me on to author, Cheryl Strayed, who has written two bestsellers and writes regularly on her enormously popular advice column at The Rumpus. People are drawn to her honesty and the way that she not so much advises as consoles.
In digging up interviews with Cheryl Strayed, I again came across the maxim about writing that involves risk, which you can read in this interview here.
But how, Cheryl, how? What do you do when you look back on your life and find no standout moments – or you doubt that the moments that standout to you are the kind that reader will give the time of day?
In another interview, one of Cheryl’s risk moments is revealed, in the transformative moment after her mother passes away and Strayed’s life as she knew it came to an end. She says:
We were spreading the ashes and I just couldn’t let go of them all. I couldn’t bear losing every material aspect of my mom. I had to keep a physical part of her with me. So I put those strange ash bones in my mouth and swallowed them. I remember even at the time that it was sort of crazy. My mother’s death put me in touch with my most savage self.
And then she says this:
The hike very literally forced me to put one foot in front of the other at a time when emotionally I didn’t think I could do that. You have to keep walking, no matter what. If you don’t, it’s a living death. You’re just standing in one place dying.
And it occurs to me that, in this sense, writing is much like any deep personal challenge. You’re not going to get down to the bone by skimming your fingertips over skin. And you don’t get to the treasure by clinging to the treasure chest. You have to do the work.
I’ve been writing seriously for three or four years now. My first major piece, I thought, delved into issues that bothered me most, but I see now how it talks about those issues the way a bumper sticker conveys a heart-felt value: you get the essence, but it’s not going to convince anyone but the already converted. Since then, my writing, both on my blog and on paper, has gotten deeper, a little more humble, a little more introspective. I think my short stories have tapped into some deeper fears I didn’t even know I had until I’ve recently let myself acknowledge them.
But it was only sitting in a car ride yesterday that some memories resurfaced that I never would have thought to remember if I hadn’t gotten some other memories out of the way first.
It reminds me of a time when my husband and I made a little wooden structure and took it to the beach to burn. On that structure we wrote things that mattered: our hopes, our fears, our secrets, and thoughts of others. They were little prayers that we held in our hearts…and then let go. As I watched them burn, new ones bubbled to the surface. I thought about other people in our lives that I cared about and wanted peace for. I grew more open and less self-centered and I experienced thoughts and hopes and wishes that I never would have if I hadn’t gotten myself out of the way first.
Maybe that’s what writing reveals to us: with every word and phrase we release, we get closer to what it is we really need to say. And you can’t say your heart until you slough off everything else first.
Have you written close to the bone? How did you get there?
Check out Cheryl Strayed’s work and her interviews HERE and HERE. If you have any favorite authors, share them in the comments and I’ll happily see what advice and inspiration we can glean from their experiences!