- by Barbara Keiler
I love Halloween. It’s hard not to love a holiday that involves obscene amounts of chocolate. But Halloween is about much more than trick-or-treating. It’s about wearing disguises and being scared.
Kind of like writing.
As a child, I loved disguising myself almost as much as I loved mooching candy off my neighbors. When I put on a costume, I could be someone else. One of my favorite Halloween disguises was to dress up as a man. I’d braid my hair and stuff it inside a fedora. I’d draw a mustache onto my upper lip with my mother’s eyeliner pencil. I’d wear a button-down shirt, an old necktie of my father’s, a pair of trousers and laced oxfords on my feet. I’d lower my voice as deep as I could and try to pass myself off as someone quite the opposite of who I was.
That’s one of my great satisfactions as an author: getting to pretend I’m someone I’m not. While writing a novel, I don’t change my apparel or paint my face to become a character, but I do crawl inside that character’s skin and take up residence within his or her mind. By creating fictional characters and then taking up residence inside them, I can pretend I’m tall and cover-girl gorgeous, or athletically talented, or evil and conniving. I’ve gotten to live as a veterinarian, an obstetrician, a pilot, a soldier, a delicatessen manager, a preschool teacher, a photographer, a chef, a hired gun…and a man.
I love living my characters while I’m writing them. Like donning a mask and a fright wig on Halloween, writing allows me to know and understand and inhabit the lives of people I could never be in real life.
Writing is also about being scared. Some writerly fears are obvious: Is what I’m writing any good? Will editors hate it? Will readers hate it? Will I suffer rejection after rejection? Will I be able to pay the electric bill this month? Will my computer be invaded by a virus that devours the manuscript I’ve been sweating blood over for the past ten months? Will the cover art for my book depict a guy who, rather than resembling the wildly sexy romantic hero I envisioned when I wrote the story, looks exactly like Dobie Gillis? (This actually happened to me. Trust me, it’s the stuff of nightmares.)
But writing is chill-inducing in other ways, as well. For a writer, stepping outside one’s comfort zone can be petrifying. Do I, as a romance writer, dare to write a mystery? (I did; it hasn’t sold.) Should I, as a writer of comedies, risk writing a dark, heavy melodrama? (I have on a number of occasions, and those books have sold—but every time I write a dark book, I fear that I may have disappointed readers who expected something different from me.) Dare I, as an author known for decent, kind-hearted characters, write characters who are brutish and bitter? (I’ve done it, it’s worked, but I’ve been a basket case throughout the entire writing process.)
I once pitched a story to an editor. I warned her it was going to be controversial, dark and a bit violent. She told me to go ahead and write the book (which she wound up publishing) and said, “I will give you only one piece of advice: don’t hold back.”
That advice has remained with me ever since. Not holding back when I’m pouring my heart and soul into a story is about the scariest thing I can think of. But I do it—every day. Not just on Halloween.
Writing novels can be downright terrifying. But the treats—the thrill of creating, the joy of sharing our ideas and passions and our art with others—make the terror bearable.