Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What does it mean to be fearless in writing? (09/15/12)

Featured writer: Becky Povich

Contributors this month:
Barbara Shine
Becky Povich
Brenda Tadych
Catherine Crawford
Claire Holcomb-Drapkin
Don Edgers
Susan Bono
Susan Winters

Making Magic

by Becky Povich

Fearless is:
Believing in yourself
Going out on a limb
Taking chances
Writing words that sometimes flow
Writing words that sometimes trickle
Forging ahead even when writer's block attacks
Fighting off self-sabotage
Staying true to your own voice

Some writers are fearless from the moment they scribble their first sentence; others may take years to feel that way, but whenever or however it happens, it's magical.

Becky Povich is fearlessly completing her first book, a memoir: From Pigtails to Chin Hairs; A Memoir & More. It's been a long time coming because she didn't achieve that fearless status until recently, but she's so grateful for everything she's learned along the way. You can visit Becky at her blog:

Who's Afraid Now?

  by Barbara Shine

A tempting topic, indeed. I welcome this opportunity to discuss what it means to be fearless in writing.

But wait! That's like saying I welcome the chance to explain how to create a five-tier wedding cake. And both topics are unlikely to be covered by me. While I've observed and admired the artistry of others, I've never really done it myself.

Oh, I've taken a run or two at the goal. When the book club met at my home for discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird, I put together a pretty respectable Lane Cake, the challenging delicacy so reverentially described in Harper Lee's novel. And I've often used innovation to appear bold-verging-on-fearless: adding espresso to the fudge brownies, or substituting apricots and almond slivers for Craisins in the biscotti. The Lane Cake verged on fearlessness, but stopped short at bravado. The other treats didn‘t come close.

Too bad there is no courage infusion for exhausted metaphors. Enough with the cakes, writer-woman! My feats of baking are pure adventure: a bit daunting, but not a call for courage. And so it seems to go with my writing.

I can appear fearless by tackling topics such as illness and death, separation and loss. But then I pull the punches by injecting humor. (Would it be fearless of me to tell the truth about the distress my chronic diseases cause? Perhaps. Would anyone want to read it? Probably not.)

Years ago, I thought that being a fearless writer meant using a bawdy vocabulary that would shock my mother, or bringing up family secrets that might shame her in the eyes of her mentally corseted friends. Mom has passed on now, and so I can do all that. The fear factor is gone. I'll have to find my way to fearlessness by other means.

Now there are grown children and grandchildren, in an invisible state, of course, reading over my shoulder as I write. What would be fearless, possibly the ultimate in fearless, is the absolute truth about myself and family, from my grandmothers, parents, and siblings to my great-granddaughter. What do I think about them and feel toward them? How do I feel in response or reaction to them? What do I want for them? From them? How have I been disappointed? What guilts do I carry for disappointing them?

These are the truths that a fearless version of me would tackle in a piece of serious writing. And my first thought now is far from fearless: I hope the kids don't see this essay.

I still don't know whether I'll ever attain fearless writing. If I cannot, does it mean I'm not really a writer? My self-image demands that I answer, with assurance, "No."

Barbara Shine is a freelance writer-editor and fiber artist in Virginia. While wrestling with her memoir about rape trauma and recovery, she also coaches clients through the birthing of their true-life stories. Her most recent collaboration produced Through Ruby-Red Glasses, by Nikki Clifton. The book is available at,, and If you’d like to ask how Barbara can support your writing, contact her by email:

Making Magic

  by Becky Povich

Fearless is:
Believing in yourself
Going out on a limb
Taking chances
Writing words that sometimes flow
Writing words that sometimes trickle
Forging ahead even when writer's block attacks
Fighting off self-sabotage
Staying true to your own voice

Some writers are fearless from the moment they scribble their first sentence; others may take years to feel that way, but whenever or however it happens, it's magical.

Becky Povich is fearlessly completing her first book, a memoir: From Pigtails to Chin Hairs; A Memoir & More. It's been a long time coming because she didn't achieve that fearless status until recently, but she's so grateful for everything she's learned along the way. You can visit Becky at her blog:

Taking it On

  by Brenda Tadych

To be fearless in writing is really a fals-fals-fals-falsity, as Normal Bates would say. It's not being without fear, but it's making someone else's fear my own, and giving the reader every necessary detail for them to feel the fear as well. I take my fear, convert it into words, and pass it on.

Perfect example, I recently wrote about a baby photo album of my cousin's, chronicling the little one's life. . .no fear yet. . .the last picture was of a teddy bear. . .still no fear. . .etched onto a granite tombstone. Did you get the license number of the bus that just hit you? That was fearless in writing.

Brenda is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania. She has a column in the bimonthly Dauphin County newspaper “Woman.” She can be reached at


  by Catherine Crawford

For someone whose totem could be the mouse, I've got my nerve writing about fearlessness. I don't experience it as often as I'd like. But I often get through fearful times by remembering I can and will survive what I feel. Poet Tony Hoagland says fear is the ghost of an experience whose pain we remember too well. He also quotes, in recent writing, Auden's belief that ghosts have to repeat whatever causes them pain.

I was a business writer when my mom died in Tucson. When I visited my dad, I found him knocking around in his big house like a single shoe in a dryer. In the kitchen he'd shared with his mate of 44 years, there was a beat-up bread box. Its contents were-—to put it delicately-—not fresh. I moved the box to clean behind it and found a mouse nest with piles of poop and a huge stack of crusts. When the invisible hoarder could not be scared off, my soft-hearted dad reluctantly set a trap.

Since shifting from business to personal writing, I've faced fears that come with a more uncertain life. My thoughts about the future make me shiver sometimes. If I run out of money and end up living in a box behind Safeway, I won't be much different than that bread-box mouse. Hapless, forsaken, and ultimately forgotten, as Roethke once said. Still, it takes guts to be anything, even a mouse. So I persevere in gathering words-—they're the loaves in my pantry—-and in nourishing my life with the crusts they become in my head.

Catherine sets traps for her inner mouse in beautiful Washington State. Her email:

Taking Steps

  by Claire Holcomb-Drapkin

Being fearless in writing means I acknowledge that first drafts are full of denials, easy sentimental metaphors, outright lies, and avoidance of the useful Anglo-Saxon words. It may not be true for braver writers, but my first draft is only a timid representation of the story I want to write. And even though I say this now, my natural tendency will always be to write around the painful, ugly places that hurt too much. I cannot escape this avoidance which perhaps is innate. So to be fearless means I have to deliberately use tools to help me strip these masking devices.

Admitting the existence of cowardice is step one.

Step two is making lists, long lists, of character traits and then free-writing about them. Inevitably some prosaic fact, like a character's coarse hair, turns into being a story about why family scrapbooks show page after page of photos painstakingly trying to tame this rebellion. What's the story here?

Step three. I have to be able to talk about all kinds of sex. Don't be ashamed to say that women menstruate and buy tampons, or to realize our characters have bodies. Sometimes they vomit or have unpleasant odors. We all do things we hope no one suspects. And, I must be equally aware that psychological odors can be as rank as physical ones.

Step four is always looking with suspicion at sentimental pictures of childhood. It's easy to talk of love and abundance and safety. Not so easy to talk of parents who fail us or who aren't the kind of people we want them to be. Would I really write that my father tried to keep Negros off Voter Registration Lists? If a topic is too hot, too explosive, then I should leave it alone. Better not to write it than write a fake account.

Step Five. Be willing to not be politically correct. Be willing to not please people it might
be helpful to please.

Step Six. Apply for Sainthood. Be willing to fail in my search for honesty and truth. Be willing to be human and let it be known that I am human and don't do all the things I say we must do.

Fearlessness is why artists are important to our lives. Honor yourself each
time you are brave. Courage is contagious. If we are lucky, our community of artists moves
the world a little closer to a place where truth does not have to hide.

Claire continues to work on her book in Maryland. It’s been a long summer,and she looks forward to winter months.

Fearless Writers

  by Don Edgers

In my youth, graffiti hadn't developed much beyond carving initials in tree bark or chalked words on wooden fences, buildings, or blackboards. Those who wrote these words or messages were often thought of as ‘fearless dunces,' especially if the writing was crude or offensive.

In the 6th grade somebody snuck into our classroom during lunch and wrote "Mrs. J is fat." When we gathered in the classroom after lunch, Mrs. J saw the message, and chose to leave it. When she spoke, we heard a lecture of condemnation. But the phantom writer was encouraged to repent with the caveat that all who were innocent, including Mrs. J, would put our heads down and close our eyes while the writer went to the board and wrote an apology.

We innocents did as told and listened intently while the guilty party went to the board, wrote something and returned to their seat. We were told to raise our heads and read the apology which read, "Mrs. J is fat and ugly." The writer was not only fearless but also shameless - and stupid - to think the teacher wouldn't recognize the perpetrator's writing.

I demonstrate fearlessness in writing when I'm passionate about a subject with which I have personal involvement or a great deal of knowledge--like teaching (book in progress).

A wildlife biologist with 40+ years of field experience, who's a friend of mine, wrote a book in 1998 titled, North America's Great Ape: the Sasquatch. Now if you think about a PhD writing such a tome that will obviously create a stir among fellow wildlife biologists, this title obviously takes bravery.

Don works fearlessly as a writer in Port Orchard, WA. His website:

Fools Rush In

  by Susan Bono

"What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

Robert Schuller's question has been drifting through my mind as I contemplate a particularly difficult series of curves in the road ahead, career-wise. I can't see around the next corner, so I've been slowing my step, dragging my feet. I've thought about trying to go back the way I came, but the road's washed out behind me and the fires of conflagration are still burning in those not so distant hills. I could just drop my pack right here and refuse to go another inch, but I don't think I'd last long on this stark, treeless stretch of mountain road with the sun just going down.

At this point, it doesn't matter if I'm fearless or not. I have to keep moving forward. Too bad there's nothing particularly appealing about putting one unseen foot in front of the other all moonless night long. I wish I had some clearer plan for getting out of this forsaken landscape. I want to be striding toward some vision of the Promised Land, even if it turns out those streets of gold are asphalt like everywhere else. Most of all, I want the confidence to believe I won't lose my way, no matter how dark it gets.

But now, on the card I've drawn from the tarot deck, I see the Fool step out along a path, not looking where he is going, paying no attention to dangers that might be lying in wait. He's not thinking of failure, only of adventure. It doesn't occur to him to worry that there are no guarantees in life, no way to stay safe on the untried path. He may not even have a destination in mind. He's just out there on the road. In spite of the fact that he might perish in the next moment, he wears a big smile. When I try on the smile, I see it contains just the kind of fearlessness I require.

Susan Bono is trying on smiles in Petaluma, CA.

Along for the Ride

  by Susan Winters

I suppose there are some modern Hemingway types who, once they get a story in their sights, pursue it relentlessly to a satisfying conclusion. They live life on a literary edge pushing boundaries without a thought to the consequences.

I am not one of them. My excitement over a new project is immediately followed by "How am I going to do that?" I can gauge the quality of an opportunity by how much it scares me.

Success in writing depends more on the willingness to move forward, not an absence of fear. During my journey as a writer, I've discovered that my fears are portable. I pack them into the backseat along with my doubts and anxieties and focus on the road ahead, keeping my hand on the volume of my favorite classic rock station, ready to drown them out in case they get too loud.

Susan Winters works, writes and dances salsa in Reno, Nevada. Her music reviews and articles have appeared in the Reno News and Review. Her novella, Mixed Blessings is now available at Amazon. Her blog celebrates balancing creative pursuits with a full-time job.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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