Don Rogers: Write where you fear most

Don Rogers

Josh Weil’s keynote talk at the Sierra Writers Conference next month will be awesome. I can’t wait.

I mean awesome in a different way, too. Not only in the very cool sense the conference organizers were fortunate enough to land him, a coup.

Weil, who lives in Nevada City, is one of today’s top fiction authors. A fan, I put him with Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Adam Johnson, Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer winners all. Two of his three books have made runners-up of several Pulitzer winners to him in other contests, so I’m not just gushing.

I read Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” and Weil’s “The Great Glass Sea” back to back to back to back again. Doerr wrote a great novel, but Weil’s is better in the end.

We write at root to make sense of life. And what do we seek to understand more than anything? Our deepest fears.

But I didn’t read them to judge. I read them for clues to unlock my own work. For the lessons. I’ll read them again, as I will “The Age of Perpetual Light,” this year’s California Book Award winner for fiction.

Weil has taught at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference and at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, among other top ones, along with universities across the country. If you write, or read seriously, he’ll be well worth the price of admission at our Sierra College campus Jan. 26. And that’s not counting the rich workshops scheduled for the day.

I know, I sound awed myself, maybe overawed. Too true. I believe the literary authors scratch at the peak of human potential, can change the course of history using only words, mere keystrokes, the ultimate code. They touch God, as well as people like Steve Jobs and Leonardo De Vinci, the Wright brothers and the girl who someday will be president of the United States.

There’s something crucial for us mortals in the act of writing, as well. Weil’s talk will focus on the core of that.

I mean, why write when there’s no end to better, easier, more enjoyable ways to apply ourselves? Not to burst bubbles, but collecting cans along the highway might be more profitable for novelists not named Rowling, Brown, Steele or King.

Up to a million new book titles in 2017 were self-published in America alone, and 300,000 more published the traditional way. Something like 90 percent of query letters to literary agents are rejected, and 80 percent of the manuscripts accepted for consideration don’t make the cut. Oh, and then the average number of sales for a book after all that culling: 250.

Still, we write, millions and millions of us. Why? I think it’s to understand. We write at root to make sense of life. And what do we seek to understand more than anything? Our deepest fears. That’s only human.

The title of Weil’s address goes right there: “Into Your Fear: Writing What Scares You.” It comes from what a professor, the playwright Vincent Cardinal, once told him: Write what scares you. If what you are writing doesn’t scare you, you probably shouldn’t write it.

“The tension in literary fiction comes from going to the fear,” Weil said. You can come at it obliquely, take from your life and push it dramatically. His characters are not like him, but their concerns often mirror his.

Fear of losing the bond of brotherhood drove “The Great Glass Sea.” A novella in his first collection, “The New Valley,” about a son losing his father was his way of dealing with divorce. A story about a man handling an adopted child’s autism poorly in “The Age of Perpetual Light” concerned his fears about becoming a father.

The evening we spoke, Weil had spent the day writing directly about fear. I had come to our dinnertime conversation armed with questions about the keynote, though we wandered far afield in this most non-interview of interviews. Have to admit I’ve always been more interested in absorbing generally than knocking out my checklist like a good, focused reporter.

We talked about fear being at the root of everything. What pulls us along despite our fear, I asked, but a universal faith things will work out? He shook his head. I think he saw it more as fear and greater fear moving us, which made sense as I thought about that.

I feared the ocean and so surfed, wildfire and so fought fire, but those are surface answers. I didn’t fear writing quite this way, other than maybe ridicule along with teachers’ judgments through high school that I couldn’t write a lick. Something else pushed me anyway.

My deeper fear is letting fear stop me. Fear of a life hemmed in by fear. Don’t laugh. I see a lot of people living this way.

We didn’t talk about this, but this fear, when we think about writing into it, I wonder if we really mean awesome in the sense of overwhelming, gut-wrenching, things so daunting we’re afraid even to look. And then going there anyway.

This might be where the real alchemy happens, where the awesome works in literature come from, a space where you and I might find something of our souls if we are brave enough.

I don’t know what Weil will say. I don’t think he knows entirely yet himself. He’s still contemplating his speech. He’ll need to write it.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299.

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