I’m Sorry You Scare Me

Writing takes courage — and so does reading. This is a thoughtful post about daring and not daring to read works that may be too challenging, too difficult.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Elizabeth Gaucher Elizabeth Gaucher

For those on our email list, an unfinished version of this post went out yesterday, our fault, not the author’s! Please enjoy the full version.

A guest post from Elizabeth Gaucher:

“I think I have to apologize for something,” the message from my longtime friend read. “At first I thought I need to apologize for not reading your latest published piece, but I think I have to apologize for or admit to something deeper.”

I felt my brows rise. This was coming from one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone who is also a writer, and it felt like a warning flare. I took a deep breath and read on into the mysterious sin. She had in fact finally read my column about the writing life for an online nonfiction journal. She was really moved by it. She apologized for not reading it sooner, admitting she wasn’t…

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7 thoughts on “I’m Sorry You Scare Me

    • Thank you for writing it! I think about these things a lot — the importance of readers who are willing to take risks. Because that affects what sells, which affects what gets published, which affects what gets written. (P.S. I’ve found plenty of challenging writing on Brevity. Now heading over to check out your blog . . .)

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  1. I have a long list of writers I don’t read, because they upset me. It has nothing to do with the quality of their work. No, that’s not true — it has everything to do with the quality of their work, combined with their subjects of choice. Good writers have the power to emotionally affect us, and I don’t want to spend time and money being even more hurt, frightened, shamed, depressed than I already am. So I seek out excellent writers who uplift and reassure me, who make me think, who show me ways to accept and rise above life’s dreadful truths. Yes, this is an ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand approach (I avoid reading and watching the news, as well) but it’s also about self-preservation. The harsh, cruel world that many great writers evoke so convincingly renders me dysfunctional if I dwell on it. I need to counter this reaction, so I feed on a constant input of positive energy, hope, clever or visionary solutions, and credible presentations of good outweighing evil if not actually vanquishing it. I get this through literature and the other arts because so much of my reality will not provide it, and I am not a sunny-natured person who can fabricate positive thoughts and feelings on my own. Well, I can, but they are flares that won’t keep burning without fuel. So I avoid some fantastic writers because they drain me rather than sustain me. Thankfully, there are so many that nurturing material is available to everyone’s taste.

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  2. I enjoyed this blog very much and appreciate Elizabeth’s honesty and willingness to face things that frighten her. That said, I’m careful of what I read because, like Carolyn, I’m easily depressed and have a hard time separating myself from devastating scenes, whether in books or films–such things can replay over and over again in my mind. Is this a lack of courage? Maybe. But I’m not willing to sink into depression to prove I’m courageous. I was more willing–actually eager–to embrace darker works when I younger, but after my divorce years ago, I found I simply couldn’t easily recover. Now I greatly appreciate authors whose works are full of truth and compassion but are framed in a way that doesn’t leave me hopeless or depressed. And I strive to do the same in my own works. I write as honestly as I can, but I make choices about what I will and won’t write about. I realize that this means I’ll never be a “great” writer, but, hey, I never had a chance for that anyway. As a dear friend used to say, quoting her father, whose name was Hoskinson, “If I can’t play like Horowitz, at least I can play like Hoskinson.” 🙂

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    • I’m curious about the leap that both Carolyn and Susan made from words like “risk” and “courage” to words like “devastating,” “depressing,” and (that killer of all discussion) “great.” Did the reference to Toni Morrison’s Beloved hijack the post? The column that prompted the friend’s response, which in turn prompted the post, doesn’t seem to have been devastating or depressing. (I’ll leave “great” out of it.) It seems inspiring, and it deals with a perennial favorite topic of writers: writer’s blocks. I understood the friend’s initial reluctance as being rooted in the fear that maybe she could do likewise: look honestly at what’s holding her up. Which is scary.

      My immediate leap was to something that was true in my long-ago bookselling days (the 1980s) and I think remains true today: that women are more likely to read books by men and about male characters than men are to read books by women and about female characters; that people of color are more likely to read books by and about white people than the reverse, and so on and on. Whatever the criterion, privileged people are less likely to expand our experience and understanding by reading books by and about people outside our immediate circles — and when they do, we often pigeon-hole the outsiders’ stories as being peculiar to them. This happens to black writers, women writers, disabled writers, gay writers, regional writers, etc. One of the privileges of privilege is that we can choose to remain comfortable by not-seeing other people, and not-reading about them. That the choice to not-read books by writers different from ourselves affects what gets published, and what sells.

      More TK!

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      • To answer your question, Susanna: My leap came from this paragraph:
        “I wonder if we all have writers we want to read but sometimes can’t or won’t, because what they reveal in us is uncomfortable or confusing or even downright unpleasant. I think about how I’ve picked up [substitute “any particular writer” for “Toni Morrison’s”] work exactly once, and not because I don’t admire her writing or don’t want to know what she has to say. Or maybe that is exactly it, I don’t want to know what she has to say. I don’t want to know it. … I feel like a coward, but I also know how hard and powerful narratives can be, how they become part of who we are, how we can’t go back to who we were before we read them. Once I’ve established a grip on writers who can do this to me, who will unavoidably alter my life with their work, I tend to exercise tremendous discretion around the right time to read them. I have in rare instances decided not to read them at all.”

        This touches on something I feel a lot, so I welcomed an environment to express it in.

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