There’s no value in trying to work on an idea you don’t love. If you don’t love it, you’ll never make it sing. You need to love it. That’s more important than anything else I’m about to say.
So. Opening the Door.
“Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” This is a famous quote from Stephen King’s On Writing, who in turn got the lesson from an editor. King said you should begin your story with the intent of it being just for you, and then open it up for others to criticize.
Was he right? When do you open the door? How do you balance the humility of seeking (and handling) criticism if it conflicts with what’s exciting you about a piece of writing? What frightens you most about sharing your writing?
In my experience, everyone’s got different answers to this last question. I want to posit something to you. That fear? That fear will likely, in some form or another, always be there. It’s unlikely you will ever defeat it. Me, at this stage in my career, I’m pretty damn fortunate. I’ve got things pretty good and I still have to deal with my fear.
But if that fear is concrete, and something you can write down on a piece of paper, then you can recognize it as something to deal with, to keep at bay. You can make it tangible, you can strategize around it, you can name it and corner it. You likely will have to deal with this thing, in order to properly open the door.
I’ll volunteer what frightens me most about sharing my writing: my fear is that the reader is going to think I’m a bad person. I always think people will look at my writing and go, “This is what’s on your mind? You could’ve written about anything and you wrote about this? Ugh, you’re sick in the head.” I always have to fight that.
Let’s go back to that Stephen King quote. “Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” What I love about that quote is the imagery of the door, or rather that of a writer in a room. So much of writing, for me, is being alone, in a room, with a notebook, a pen, a keyboard. And it is about somebody else who you’ve never met, alone, in a room, with the fruits of your notebook, your pen, your keyboard. It’s about being alone, reaching into the ether, and speaking to another person, alone.
Having that said, while that truth exists, the parallel (and maybe obvious) truth is that it’s impossible to get to that reader alone. I would absolutely be nowhere as a writer without not only smart editors, but also friends who I could turn to to read and critique my writing and support my life in all sorts of ways. Many of whom are also writers whose work I read and critique and also support however I can. What I might call a community of support.
That notion of the lonely genius writer? Toiling away in a room with his genius and creating great works? It’s true that writing can be a lonely venture, but it’s only one part of the equation, and the other part is community. Friends, teachers, editors. And I think there is something patriarchal and reminiscent of white masculinity in this idea that a writer works and works by themselves and eventually emerges with something great and amazing they then bestow upon the world.
Writing doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum. In my opinion and experience, there’s a part of the work that’s being alone, and a part of the work that’s community: friends, teachers, editors. When you begin to involve community, that’s when you open the door.
I’m going to guess a lot of people reading this might think: “I’m just starting out, I don’t know other writers, I don’t have a writing teacher, I don’t work with an editor, like…crap!”
And I want to tell you that’s fine. Keep going, and have an eye to this stuff. But if you don’t have people around you, join writing groups, offline or online. If there are open mics or reading series or book launches in your town, go. I think most importantly, find people who are interested in the same work you’re interested in, and go from there.
I’m interested in the relationship between these two things: the solitariness of writing, and the relationship we have with our community, the people who give feedback: friends, teachers, editors. Readers!
A few more thoughts about opening the door that I’d like to talk about revolve around the process of transitioning from creating something alone to showing it to someone else.
1. Sometimes a piece of writing will follow me around—I’m doing the dishes, or I’m grocery shopping, and then it hits me like: “No, no, there’s this one part that still needs to be different.” Sometimes I have an idea of how to fix it. And sometimes I’m totally at loose ends. For me, I send stuff out for critique when I’m out of solutions on my own. But: if I know how to fix it, that means I just haven’t done it yet. It’s not ready for anyone else to see. I start e-mailing people when I’m out of ideas. I get ahold of my friends when I start thinking, “This piece is not perfect, but I’m not at a point where I can make it any better on my own.”
2. I don’t know about you, but I definitely write about some intense subjects. Stuff that’s intimate and painful. Hearing criticism about my work can really sting sometimes. It’s always going to sting. I’m not exactly a veteran, but I’ve been publishing work for over a decade now and the criticism hasn’t hurt any less, and I don’t know any author who’s like “Oh yeah, I got over it, I can take anything now, ha!” Criticism is going to hurt. And to me, depending on the subject matter, I have to do some inner processing, basically, before I send the piece out for critique. You know, it’s like going outside in minus thirty: You bundle up, and it’s still gonna suck, but if you take the time to bundle up right, it sucks less.
3. Finally, a key transition point for me: when I’m moving from that inner, private creating-for-myself stage to opening it up to the world, a key thing I do is print the piece out, take it somewhere out of the house, like a café or something, and I mark it up with a pen as if I were an editor. It really works for me. It’s like I’ve tricked my brain into thinking the piece isn’t mine and I can just be like “This word should be different, and this paragraph would be way better if I cut this line” and blah blah blah.
There’s no magical juncture where something *becomes* a good piece of writing or a publishable piece of writing. There’s nothing metaphysically that’s different between this prize-winning author and the kind of dreck that I was sloughing into my computer at 19. You just keep working on stuff.
Before we go, I’m going to leave you with one more story, specifically about fiction and the notion of writing that makes efforts to speak against marginalization and the awfulness of the world, the power that fiction can have to change, provoke, and question things.
I wrote this story once called “Other Women” for an anthology, which on its release was the first thing I’d ever written to end up in a book. Towards the end of the story, the main character has sex with her high school best friend, and that sex turns non-consensual, and eventually she leaves in a fight and goes and sleeps with her friend’s roommate. I’ve since had trans women come up to me and say that story did something for them, and I’ve seen that story talked about in the context of trans women experiencing sexual assault. Those trans women readers telling me this means the world to me. It really does. It really does.
But, I didn’t write it thinking that would happen. I just had this story I had to get out and I felt so alone writing it but I just had this force in me telling me I had to do it. This force coming from wherever the fuck my own mix of experiences and creative inspiration comes from. And when I did think of how the story might be received? I didn’t imagine good things. I thought trans women readers would hate it. I thought they’d think that I was giving us a bad name. The state of trans art and representation was a lot different just nine years ago, and I was so sure that this story was like… shitting with the door open, so to speak.
The point I wish to make is that so much of the exciting stuff books are capable of, the cathartic and intimate and world-changing power that specifically fiction might hold—to me that power is not necessarily harnessable or predictable in the act of writing. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but thinking of how my writing might collide with the world doesn’t help me, and maybe it doesn’t help you either, and if it doesn’t, that’s okay.
Thinking about a reader—a person alone in a room who feels like I do, that helps me.
Now, this is not to say that when we are publishing work, we shouldn’t consider how the world will react. I do believe publishing is not free of moral considerations, I do believe in sensitivity reading, and I do believe in being conscious of politics and ethics when one is finishing a work and preparing it for publication.
I guess what I’m trying to share is that for me, the first parts of the writing journey involve shutting out the world, and the last parts involve letting it back in.
This is an excerpt from the talk Casey gave at Writing North 2020.