Writers, Let Your Freak Flag Fly

March 4, 2016 § 36 Comments

N. West Moss

N. West Moss

By N. West Moss

Writing requires bravery. I’ve heard this a thousand times, but what does it mean? When I was getting my MFA a few years ago, some classmates interpreted it to mean they should write about taboo subjects, like masturbation (sorry) and heroin addiction, that the brave part of writing was confessing one’s deepest shames and most private moments. As off-limits as the subjects might have been, I found the scenes of stuff like this oddly bloodless and uninteresting. To equate bravery with solipsism is a mistake that a lot of beginning writers make, myself included.

I think the courage that is required for being a writer is the courage to figure out who you are, and to pursue THAT without shame. It is our obsessions that make us unique – our obsessions with words and sounds, with themes, with people, with what we have and what we have lost and what we wish we’d been given. It is the sum total of our life, at a given moment, that makes our art separate from, but in concert with, all other art.

I’m a late bloomer, so I was in my 40s when I came to realize that embracing my obsessions (about miscarriage, death, yellow fever, bees, etc.), and my own contradictions (for instance my sincere belief that I am both a genius and a failure, or that I simultaneously love and detest humanity), that all of this is the detritus that makes up the soil where my writing grows.

So I write about what I think about (the vulnerability of the guileless, about social insects and mosquito-borne illnesses, about gardens and miscarriages and fathers who have died) but the bravery to write has little to do with the content of what I write. The bravery seems to be about the content of my life, and my ability to sit squarely in the middle of my life’s mess and embrace it as mine. The bravery, in the end, comes not from looking inward, or it doesn’t for me anyway, but from sitting squarely in the soil of my own life, and looking outward, as only I can.

N. West Moss has had her work published by The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon and elsewhere. Her writing has won the Great American Fiction Contest (2015) and two Faulkner-Wisdom gold medals. Moss’ first collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, is due out from Leapfrog Press in the spring of 2017, and she is at work on two novels.


§ 36 Responses to Writers, Let Your Freak Flag Fly

  • Katherine Carew says:

    I agree that it gets tiresome to read about yet another sexual escapade, and yet sometimes an affair rips apart ones world. I struggle to find a way to write about how that event made me realize that I had no marriage and that I had been totally dead as a woman and a person. It was the fact that the encounter brought me to life not the story of the encounter itself. Now I had to decide how I was going to live in a dead marriage or leave my husband and see if I could find my way in the world.

    • scoutandhuck says:

      Yes Katherine – I guess the trick for me is that we find a way to tell our stories in some fresh way that only we can tell them. It is the hard part – to tell a universal and thus familiar story in a way that is surprising rather than confessional. A difficult needle to thread, often.

  • rebeccakuder says:

    Thank you! This is a refreshing reframe on the idea of courage and writing. And I love the title. 🙂

  • SheepDip says:

    Reblogged this on joustingwiththeimagination and commented:
    Good read.

  • randyfertel says:

    Fresh from a Jung workshop, I read your piece as thoroughly Jungian. Jung urges us to embrace our Shadow, our dark side, those parts of ourselves we wish not to own. Good little girls don’t hit their sister, we hear, so our anger festers and returns at some point like one of your disease-bearing mosquitoes. Embracing our shadow inoculates us against such a return; it always involves dealing with and embracing our contradictions. So like Emerson to Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great [Jungian] career.”

    • scoutandhuck says:

      Oh Randy – what a writer you are! “Our anger festers and returns … like one of your disease-bearing mosquitoes.” You are wonderful, plain and simple

  • lacymaybe says:

    So resonant today. Thank you!!

  • Sarah Myers says:


  • When you were getting your MFA, you and your fellow students were learning. Perhaps those who wrote about heroin addiction and other privacies were learning how to write about these difficult topics. They were exploring and experimenting; writers can be inept when they learn how to write about private or shameful topics. So maybe cut them some slack, because some of them will go on to write brilliantly about those very topics, in ways that will speak to those who have no voice.

    • scoutandhuck says:

      Absolutely true. It’s a vital part of learning to write. As I said, I too have been solipsistic, and probably continue to be without even realizing it. I learned a lot, though, from noticing that.

  • kilgorebilly says:

    thanks for offering this wisdom. I felt like you named a trap all writers fall into at some point.

  • Beautiful…I enjoyed this honest delivery from the soul; so many excellent, relatable points. Thanks for sharing!

  • Erin says:

    I love this–exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you!

  • Stacy Moore says:

    Yes! I have a composer friend who in grad school was trying to live into the image of the troubled artist—lots of late nights, whiskey, angst, and tempestuous romances—and ended up in serious psychological difficulties. When he emerged on the other side (thank goodness) he told me, “We think we’re pursuing passion and depth, but a lot of times we’re just idealizing poor mental health. What we should be looking for is the truth of what moves us.”

  • scoutandhuck says:

    Stacy Moore – what a great line. “What we should be looking for is the truth of what moves us.” Exactly.

  • Yes so true! The courage in writing is about embracing ourselves with our obsessions and all that could be messy!

  • clpauwels says:

    Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
    Write bravely.

    So much easier said than done, but worth the effort!

  • Kiri says:

    I love this!

  • Susanne says:

    I’m putting your concluding sentence on a 3 x 5 card and taping it over my desk. “The bravery, in the end, comes not from looking inward, or it doesn’t for me anyway, but from sitting squarely in the soil of my own life, and looking outward, as only I can.”

  • ericstone51 says:

    The bravery for me is not the writing. I have no problem looking inward at a mess or outward at a bigger mess. The bravery comes from releasing and letting people see just how much of a freak I really am. Then comes the judgement, criticisms, opinions, comments (spoken or unspoken) and discovery. People can be blunt and uncaring. That’s scary as hell to open the window, pull back the shades and let others see inside.

    • scoutandhuck says:

      You’re right, I think. It can be frightening to lay yourself bare in your work, and the “judgment, criticisms,” etc. that you mention CAN be devastating. I can still get my feelings hurt, but somehow, slowly, as I write and write and write, and as I’ve begun to find my voice and my audience, the ups and downs are less extreme. Scary indeed to “open the window” and “pull back the shades.” Thanks for weighing in.

  • Dana says:

    Oh, this is one of my favorite Brevity essays! So beautifully and wisely stated, our obsessions make us unique, yes what a truth.

  • Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here is a great view on writing. Enjoy.

  • Little Voice says:

    Beautifully said and wonderful wisdom about writing.

  • youmustnotmissny says:

    These are encouraging words for budding writers.

  • This is a lovely post, and truthfully written. It resonates for me, at a time – over 30 years into my writing life – when the words are proving difficult to find. And the mess is all around me! This process never stops unfolding…Writing is both magical and painful. And it is greatly cheering to read your words as an acknowledgement of that fact. Thank you.

  • michelefallon says:

    I am a non-writer who writes. I don’t think I even took an English class in college. For me, being brave is having the balls to put my writing out there, knowing that it’s probably a technical nightmare to the real writers who read it. But I love it anyway! It really makes me feel normal knowing that even someone as accomplished as you still needs to find her bravery and own who she is. Thank you so much for this!

  • Jane Andrews says:

    What I’ve discovered is that when I write about other people, I reveal myself whether I intend to or not. Often, I discover new perspectives about them AND me. Kind of a sweet deal, really. Occasionally, readers tell me I’m brave. But I suspect I’m just truthful.

  • […] “Writer, Let Your Freak Flag Fly” by N. West Moss identifies what bravery means to her when it comes to writing: “The […]

  • […] betteroff, brevity, courage, dirtywhitegirl, dontwait, freakflagfly, jobe, nwestmoss Source Writers, Let Your Freak Flag Fly on Brevity // Made with Be Happy Source Dirty White Girl Source Toni […]

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog explores what “bravery” might mean for a writer…

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