One of the things I tell all my students is that writing is – when done well – all about honesty. Whether you’re writing your memoir, your resume, your department report, honesty should always be central to writing. And that’s risky. To be honest is to, inherently, take a risk.
This may not seem true if you’re writing a memo at work – where’s the risk in that? But a couple of important examples should illustrate this point. First, the memo from the engineers to the managers at Morton-Thiokol, the company who made the O-Rings for the Challenger space shuttle. The engineers wrote a memo warning that the o-rings might rail at below-freezing temperatures, but they failed to convey the urgency of the situation by starting the memo with “DO NOT LAUNCH THE SHUTTLE;” instead, this information was buried in the middle of the memo. It can be argued, of course, that the managers still should have seen it, but as anyone who has ever worked with management or been part of management knows, you have to skim most documents just to get through the day. There was risk in writing the memo, there was risk in not reading it well, and we see the results of not taking more risk to be sure the message was heard.
Secondly, think about this gushing BP oil leak that is killing the Gulf right now. Rig mechanics quarreled with BP because he felt that the process they were suggesting for closing the well was dangerous. They made this point at a meeting, but they didn’t insist or demand. When BP said they were going ahead, they balked and quit trying. Perhaps there was no way for them to get this idea across or for them to be heard, but wouldn’t it have been grand if they’d been willing to put their words in public writing, maybe even risking their jobs in the process, just to get their point across? Here is a writing situation that called for some risk.
Simply putting words on the page is risky. It makes us vulnerable and accountable (if you doubt this, think of all the people you know who refuse to “put it in writing” when there’s something questionable going on). But there’s great value in that risk. In extreme cases, it might save lives. In everyday ones, it will make you braver, stronger, and deeply more honest.
So what risks do you take in your writing? When is writing most risky for you? At home? At work? At school? What keeps you from taking a risk?