When I was just getting started as a writer, I immediately took some risks. It wasn’t something I set out to do, it just came out that way. For example, I wrote an essay called “The Life and Times of My Breasts,” and sent it to Parents Magazine. It was about breastfeeding, but not the usual sort of thing you’d see in a mainstream magazine back in the early 1990s. I wrote openly about the horrors and humor of having my breasts swell up to the size of two Volkswagons in the earliest days at home with my firstborn, and how I tried to find relief naturally, according to the advice in one of my myriad tomes for new mothers, by stuffing raw cabbage leaves in my improbably gigantic nursing bra. No relief ensued, however. All that happened is that the leaves literally steamed and wilted from the heat of my painfully engorged, swollen, and feverish breasts, which, in unjust defiance, refused to shrink or soften despite the pungent stench of the softened cabbage.
I wrote, too, about the stark surprise much later, after weaning; the detached amazement I experienced over my newly regained and now much smaller breasts, deflated and light, like empty socks. And of course I wrote about the awe of my daughter (and later my son), the closeness and love of nursing them, and the totally blissed-out high of a warm, sated child in my arms, of seeing that tiny and impossibly soft head lolled back like a drunken sailor, or fragile bird. Parents Magazine loved the piece, and I, after happy dancing all over the house, reflected that it had been a risk to write that kind of essay, but it had paid off. And it was just what I wanted to write. It felt fantastic.
According to my mentor, the poet and creative genius Paul Matthews, the idea of risk in language is connected to what we would essentially think of as an early French parlor game. Writes Matthews in his classic book, Sing Me the Creation, “The Troubadours in the South of France in the 13th century played a literary question-and-answer game called ‘jeu-parti,’ or the ‘divided game.’ From this comes our word ‘jeopardy,’ meaning danger. It is a marvelous root, that in the midst of our word-play we might be confronted by a real question so that our whole being stands before a creative risk, a jeopardy, to be faced directly or shied away from….
“Such moments in writing nearly always have something of the question, ‘Who are you?’ hidden inside them,” Matthews continues. “Without that fundamental question, in fact, no real conversation is possible, and yet we spend so much of our lives talking about other things in order to avoid it. When, however, that question is asked, the possibility of a poetry arises.”
I love this intertwined concept of a parlor game, jeopardy, the unexpected question of essential self, and poetry. And anyone who’s ever played talking games such as “two truths and a lie” knows how potent the brew of fun and risk can be when packaged in the guise of word play.
To carry the same possibilities–the same juxtaposition of fun and danger and authentic identity–into our writing is a very worthy endeavor.