Writing into the shadows

Welcome to Austin Bat Cave’s Virtual Literary Salon. Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite writers reflecting on the current moment and presenting writing prompts and literary challenges that will hopefully get you inspired and creating. We welcome discussion and your input. Each week, you’ll be able to comment on the post and share your own thoughts, ideas, and challenges. Please tell a friend! And if you’re able to, consider making a contribution to Austin Bat Cave and help support our creative community.

Today’s writing prompt is brought to you by Bret Anthony Johnston. Bret is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Remember Me Like This, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the winner of the 2015 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns Prize.  The book has been translated around the world and is being made into a major motion picture.  Bret is also the author of  the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. His work appears in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Best American Short Stories, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts.


As a reader, I’m profoundly grateful for the unencumbered time that various colonies and retreats have afforded my favorite writers.  It’s impossible to estimate how many of the books I love wouldn’t have been written if places like MacDowell hadn’t fed and housed those writers, if Yaddo hadn’t shielded them from the distractions, interruptions, and nagging obligations of daily life.  As a reader, I would argue I’ve benefitted as much from said colonies as the writers have.  As a writer, I’ve avoided them like the—well, you know.

In theory, the idea of having entire days or weeks or months to do nothing but write sounds ideal.  Before you’ve even arrived at the idyllic locale, you’re already tallying how much you’re going to get done. Then you start accounting for the seemingly real possibility that your goal for the retreat might be too conservative, so you double it.  Then you double it again.  Then, if you’re like most writers, a demographic not exactly known for impulse control, you decide to triple your original goal for good measure.

What a dream! A gift! A blessing to end all blessings! Thanks, but I’ll pass. 

Why? Because I worry that those admittedly generous stretches of uninterrupted time exert too much pressure on the writers and their work.  I worry that by stripping away the obvious sources of stress and anxiety, we make room for new and worse adversaries to inhabit.  I worry that having no excuse for not writing—let alone not writing beautifully or brilliantly—will actually shut down more writers than not. It’s why so many writers return from their retreats disappointed and discouraged.  It’s why so many come back having generated fewer pages than they do at home, juggling jobs and families and obligatory reality television binges. 

And right now, every writer I know is locked in the same surreal, claustrophobic, and panic-inducing writing retreat, a maddeningly indefinite period where every hour of every day taunts us with blank pages and where well-meaning friends say things like, “I bet you’re getting a lot of writing done!” or “At least now you’ll have time to finish your book!” or “Are you done yet?” 

Again, for me, it just seems like too much pressure.  Writing is hard enough on regular days, let alone when the world has shut down and we have too much time to write.  So, now more than ever, I’m looking for ways to alleviate that unique pressure, to make the writing process more manageable.

The Exercise:

From time to time, in my own work and with my students, I’ve suggested writing into the shadows, which maybe sounds spooky and serious, but it’s quite the opposite.  Instead of working on your ‘real work,’ write a scene or character or even a story to the left of it.  Write something you vow to show no one, but something you’ve always wanted to write.  Write a scene or story from the genre you secretly love—espionage thriller, vampire erotica, cyberpunk cultural commentary.  Write a sappy romance, a speculative allegory, a historical YA melodrama, or a parody of your favorite or least favorite writer.  Write anything, anything at all, where your only goal is to get swept up in the joy of language, the unparalleled satisfaction of watching a story of your own making unfold one letter at a time. 

You’ll be surprised how easily and assuredly this ushers you back to your ‘real work’ with renewed energy, imagination, and faith that what you’re doing matters, not least in times like these.