There’s a catchy little song the Muppets did back in the 80s. Through it, Ernie learns he needs to let go of something (hint: it’s rubber and it quacks)—to make music.
It reminds me of writing ruts I’ve been in. And I don’t mean writer’s block. I’m talking about the riskless, boring, formulaic writing that writers end up in because it’s safe, fast and, unfortunately, familiar.
It’s not like we don’t know better. We know we are supposed to tell stories. We are supposed to give our readers something they can relate to. Engage emotions. Connect.
But it seems like we are always standing at the intersection of Prudent and Bold.
Why do we end up there? Well, it’s easy to point fingers. “I’d be daring if it weren’t for the relentless vetting process my employer requires!” “My audience is corporate.” “My boss won’t like it.”
I’ve no doubt for some of us, there are very real restrictions. But, how often is it just lethargy or fear? A duckie, if you will. And this one limits and it saps.
A trip too far down Prudent Lane leads to writing like this:
With over 50 affiliated faculty who are distinguished in a wide range of scientific disciplines, the center offers an innovative and highly integrative environment for research, teaching and graduate school education.
In case you are wondering, I think I wrote that in about 2006. It was the kind of writing I was used to at that time and in that particular position. There’s nothing wrong with it per se and it may have had its place. But, it’s not exactly unexpected.
Somewhat more recently I wrote this:
You’ll join a community that shares a sense of purpose and a special bond. Talented people from every conceivable background are inspired by capable leaders, instilled with a love for hard work and collegiality, unleashed by the massive resources of one of the top research universities in the world.
Better. It too may have served its intended purpose: the recruiting of good job candidates. But I’m much, much prouder of this:
“At times I feel the hugeness of the university and its way of life closes down on me and I wonder who I am and where I am going.”
A student contributed that pensive line to the 1969 Yearbook. It could have been from the journal of NAME WITHHELD who as a sophomore that year, like many sophomores in any year, was floundering. As the first in his family to attend college, paying for school through a combination of scholarships and work, and indeed, unsure of who he was or where he was going, he considered “packing it up and leaving.”
Then, as often happens, one person took an interest in him.
I think that’s the kind of writing that makes you want to keep reading. (By the way, he graduated and became a research and development V.P. for a major corporation. I am guessing you might actually want to know.)
Here’s the challenge. Put aside familiar routines and stretch outside what is expected. Write something that makes an emotional connection with someone. Be brave. And—gasp!—maybe even make a mistake. I’d love to see what you come up with!
I’ll wrap up with the immortal words of Mr. Hoots: “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone!”