A few years ago, I wrote a post that was part of my “52 Ways to Shift Your Focus” series, called “Ride Without a Helmet.” The post was not about riding bicycles sans head-gear as much as it was about risk, about getting the work out there for public consumption. That I had gone for an impromptu bike ride early on a Sunday morning and left my helmet at home was the spark for that piece, not an explanation of my usual behavior. Nevertheless, I had a couple of comments in which I was chastised for riding without a helmet.
I think of that article sometimes when I notice people taking a message away from an article or talk that wasn’t its main point. Perhaps my commenters had someone who suffered as a result of riding helmet-less and that pushed their focus in a different direction. But I was irritated that two people thought they should tell a grown-up writing about risk to put a helmet on.
Clearly, I’m still irritated. What made me think about this again was listening to other writers and editors at the AWP conference last week talk about risk. About saying stuff that matters or being quiet. I listened to women writers talk about getting their stories out there regardless of the resistance to what those stories held: rape, incest, sex trade work, mental health issues, substance abuse. Important stories. Stories that aren’t necessarily linear. I listened to a panel of memoirists and journalists talk about disasters and trying to share the stories of the people affected by those disasters. The risk there is in the translation, in getting it right, as much as in putting an uncomfortable tale in front of the public.
I am clear that writers – and artists, musicians, actors, and anyone else engaged in reflecting what goes on in the world – take the risk of being censored. Of being ignored. And of being misunderstood. If someone shares a story of substance abuse, for example, the main point is unlikely to be that they made a bad choice. Think about the situation that led to the abuse in the first place. That’s the point. And maybe how to rehabilitate oneself. That’s another point.
Above all, think.