On December 4, Don Maass’ first of a planned three columns on this year’s Writer Unboxed Un-Con helped me sort out one of the more interesting tensions I’ve seen growing this year in the writing community at its broadest. It involves risk, going wide, and who does it.
I’m using tension here in its safer connotation(s), as in a helpful tautness that keeps a tightrope walker from falling, or, as one dictionary treatment has it, “inner unrest, striving, or imbalance.” Years’ ends are good moments to assess tensions of many kinds, because the psychological transfer of one year to another itself vibrates with tension, energy–captured at best and lashing around at worst.
That old phrase “to catch the tenor of the times” today makes more sense as “to catch the tension of the times.”
Don writes, “Every manuscript holds back in some way,” and he goes on to list ways that a work’s own dynamics can defeat itself, including “Characters who only go so deep”–which I originally read as “characters who only go to sleep,” ironically–as well as “outcomes never really in doubt” and “voices that could be anyone’s.”
He goes on to describe a capacity for “reinventing you,” which can create a “sense of wonder we feel in reading [something that] springs from what is personal to you in writing.” And he captures the value of being terrified. “Terrified is exactly how you want to be. When you’re terrified, you’re not playing it safe.”
I realized where I’d seen this first: tennis. In 2012, the Czech tennis player Lukáš Rosol defeated Rafael Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon. The tennis world was aghast. Rosol was a virtual unknown, a kid. He’d blasted into view on a grass court and he’d taken down the No. 2 player in the world at one of the highest peaks of the sport, the All England Club.
In ensuing years, the incident would be repeated with more recognition. Every now and then, a player–usually young, usually far down in the world rankings–will take out a star of the pantheon in an early match at a big tournament. It happens with enough frequency that wary eyes look at early draws now to see where these moments might occur.
And at one point, Serena Williams articulated exactly what’s happening. The more mature, vaunted players–herself included–can be blindsided by such an opponent, she said, because the comparative newcomer has nothing to lose. Just to get onto one of the great courts of the tournament year with one of the legends of the game is such a break that a player in this position will risk everything. While the more seasoned champion is pacing her- or himself for the incredible strain of a two-week tournament, the “out of nowhere” player will spend every ounce of strength he or she has to win this potentially career-igniting match.
And this year’s writerly observers are seeing something that carries a rough parallel to this. It’s my provocation for you today.