“Less mind, more heart. That’s what it comes down to.”
What do all of us writers long to hear from our readers, asked Robert Vivian in his lecture here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing summer residency? We want to hear that our prose or poetry has moved said readers.
And why do we sometimes fail to move them?
“Because we’re afraid.”
Vivian is a writing polymath, as a novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet. He’s obviously overcome a lot of fear in his own writing.
Overcoming fear was Vivian’s first key to getting your heart on the page. He articulated several sources of that fear, including a fear of:
- Sentimental or hokey writing.
- Offending others.
- Being judged as eccentric or insane.
- Even more criticism.
- Overcoming a conditioned state of being emotionally dishonest.
It takes great courage to share yourself through your writing, he said, but as a fiction writer it can give you great power, as you fill your character’s hearts with your own creative blood.
The word “courage,” Vivian said, derives from Old French, from the same root for “heart.” “Heart equals courage,” he said. “Courage equals heart.”
Not all courage needs to explore those dark places in our own hearts, he said, admitting his mother often tells him she wishes his novels weren’t so disturbing. Writers can also build upon those “sacramental” moments of stirring joy. They can risk being funny, or weird, or absurd, or risque, or sexy.
“My first lesson is this,” he said. “Take one emotional risk in your writing every day.”
Those of us who have developed a sense of Vivian know that he is nothing if not self-effacing, and appears congenitally allergic to demanding obedience. So, of course, he then said his words need not be taken as a mandate. “You can do it every other day. Or once a week.”
Bob, I will aim to do it every time I sit down to produce creative prose, freely admitting I don’t find time to write creatively every day.
By my count, Vivian shared four ways to get your heart on the page in his one-hour lecture, titled “A Writer’s Ache for Sympathy: 10 Ways to Get Your Heart on the Page.” He admitted at the start, in his self-effacing way, that he wrote the subtitle of his lecture before he knew what his ten ways were, but assumed there must be at least ten. At the end of his lecture, he suggested he might share more in his next lecture at our upcoming winter residency.
I hope he feels no obligation to do so. I would welcome another such lecture, but he provided real value in this one, and I would hate for him to feel creatively obligated to continue on this topic.
I also celebrate the fact that he did not share what was promised, a top-ten list. In the course I teach at The Writer’s Center on writing compelling blog posts, I advise my students that lists are extremely popular in the blogosphere. Come up with a list, write it down, and identify it as such in your headline, and you will get more readers and generate more social-media sharing of your post.
That said, I also confess to my students that I have an allergy–I’m not convinced it’s congenital–to blog lists. Perhaps it’s my years in journalism, where I learned lists are a quick and lazy way to generate more column inches without much intellectual effort. Vivian clearly put a lot of thought into this lecture, and I learned a lot without him moving through a numerical list.
Here I am, overcoming my fear and putting my own passion into the digital page. What am I risking here? Hmm. I suppose exposing myself as a cranky old man. So be it.
Do you risk exposing your own heart in your writing? Or in other forms of art? Vivian also discussed painting, printmaking, sculpting and other expressions of creativity.