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At 72, Rhea Atwood found herself in her comfortable California apartment feeling her bed was “too soft.”
“I decided to listen to my bed and waited a few days for it to tell me what to do about it.”
Rhea spent the next four years following in the footsteps of the French Huguenots across the globe, visiting 17 countries and 5 continents, and surfing on a number of couches through couchsurfing.
Previously a cautious risk taker, Rhea became, in her own words, intrepid. At times she had no money and no place to stay. Can you imagine? And yet she persisted.
Now, Rhea is writing a book about her experiences.
Although Rhea has written a walking guide and a book of historic photographs–Boston’s French Secrets and Upper Beacon Hill–her current project is her first foray into more narrative writing (the self-help memoir). With a change in genre comes the search to find her writing voice.
My advice? “Take risks on the page. In the same way you took risks by traveling alone at 72 through 76, not knowing where you’d stay or sometimes how you’d pay for it, you need to be adventurous on the page.”
How to Take Risks on the Page
- Experiment with syntax: try super-short sentences or paragraphs in one chapter. Play with rhythm. Write a prose poem in one chapter. Or think jazz in Paris, African beats in Morocco.
- Play with dialogue: try a whole chapter around dialogue.
- Imagine: If you don’t remember how you felt or what you did, ask yourself, “What might I have felt?” You can always change it later, but this exercise can open the door to memory.
- “Get Carnal” (Mary Karr‘s advice in The Art of Memoir): Keep asking yourself how something felt in your body, where in your body you felt it, how your body reacted to something, what you did with your body. These questions will help your readers experience the event along with you, as first hand.
- Practice another point of view: The hotel concierge in Rome, the archivist in Transylvania, the stray dog in Nice.
- Innovate around features: How about offering creative exercises, questions for reflection, sidebars, videos or cartoons?
- Try on new forms: a prose poem in one chapter, a song in another.
These are experiments. Some–maybe many–of them will fail. Perhaps, miserably. Yet, in the experimenting, you will find your voice.
How Risky Should I Get?
I found myself in a related conversation just an hour later with another client, a therapist, who is about to speak with a publisher interested in his book. He admitted that he tried to retain a fairly neutral voice. After all, that’s his training.
He wondered though:
- What if he didn’t hold back so much?
- What if he put himself out there?
- Was he doing the right thing by meeting his readers where he assumed they are?
- Or should he be bolder, more vulnerable, share his spiritual orientation?
- Would he alienate his readers if he shared his religious and spiritual side?
Would the more prescriptive book have broader appeal? Or should he share his deeper thoughts and experiences?
We agreed he would pick one chapter and experiment. He could always change it back. But if he never tried, he’d never know.
He can explore this question again with his acquisitions editor, once he signs a contract, but just playing with a chapter and seeing what happens is the perfect place to start, to take a risk, to see writing as a true adventure.
My Turn, Your Turn: Take Risks Together
In less than 48 hours I begin my second trip to Bangkok to teach another writing workshop and do some writing of my own.
Last trip was an adventure in spontaneity and trust. The same intention I brought to my travels opened up my writing. I tried things I’d never tried before. Some of it didn’t work at all. Other parts, I’m kind of excited about.
So this trip, I’m tempted to return to the places I visited. To look with more trained eyes. To go deeper. So I can write in more detail.
But I’m letting go of that.
Aside from the day I teach at NIDA Business School, I’m going to play, be open to adventure and see what happens in my travels and my writing.
I’m bringing several writing projects but planning on working on none or all or some. I don’t know. I may just journal.
I’m enjoying the sense of freedom of allowing myself to not know, to be open to infinite possibilities, to wait and see what draws my eye, my ear, my pen.
How about you? Any risks you feel inspired to take? Any adventures that helped you find your writing voice? Please share your comments.