That’s right, I’m talking about cheerleaders. Not the ones who wear short skirts and build human pyramids, but the ones who sometimes keep us going.
Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I’ve always understood this on a level, but it wasn’t until I began my current project that I truly internalized it. Humor has always been a defense mechanism for me. Snark and sarcasm come naturally. Holding it back is hard. Emotion is harder. But the novel I’m working on right now is deep and dark, psychological and suspenseful, and it deals with some extremely difficult issues. Devastating, even. This means several things:
1) I have to GO THERE. You can not write a dark novel without getting into the mindset. Just as profilers need to get into the heads of the killers they’re tracking, you have to be the person or people you’re writing. You can’t just walk a mile in their shoes, you have to live the narrative in their heads and hearts.
2) There’s no safety suit. You can’t shield yourself and still tap the well of emotion that you need to plumb.
3) You need cheerleaders.
To be honest, #3 is true for whatever kind of artistic endeavor you undertake. Art is often speculative in the sense of being done “on spec”—live without a net…or contract. No one can tell you its worth before they actually see the finished product, or at least a really significant portion thereof. In other words, when you’re starting out a new novel or proposal, you have to pour blood, sweat and tears into it, then polish it to a high gloss before anyone ever sees it and says to you, “Yes!” Right? Wrong. Oh, you do want to get it into the best shape of its life before the publishing pro sees it, but sometimes you need some perspective. You need someone to assure you that all the time spent away from your family and endlessly revising that opening scene to the point where you feel you’re making no progress at all will be worth it in the end. You need your cheerleaders. At least I do, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Now, I’m not talking about yes men and women, who will tell you that something is wonderful even if it isn’t. I’m talking about people you trust to tell it like it is, because those will be the people whose opinions mean the most. They might be critique partners or a group, if they can be as enthusiastic as they are brutal. They might be readers (as opposed to critiquers, though they’re, of course, readers too), or even family members, though I’d be careful about that. The important thing is that art, whether visual, textual or experiential, is not just about the artist, but the interaction of the audience with the piece. Sometimes, you just need to know if you’re striking the right chord. That, to me, is priceless.