A few weeks into my freshman year in college, a newly-made friend invited me to spend a Sunday afternoon out on the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway. He had a boat, and a few of us would go water-skiing, he told me.
I showed up nervous. I’d never been waterskiing before, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d like the experience. We loaded up in his boat, headed out into the water. I very quickly discovered that what we were about to do could only very loosely be described as skiing. My friend had a length of rope. He had the lid to a Rubbermaid container. Each of us would hold the rope, stand on the lid, and “ski.”
I watched with growing horror as each person who attempted this managed to stand for only a second or two before the lid shot out from beneath them and they tumbled – usually face-first – into the water. This was, I gathered, great fun. Everyone was laughing about it, so I laughed along, but my fear was deepening by the moment. Still, there was something delightfully enticing about the idea of standing on that lid while the boat pulled me. I have never been one for trying new things. My default-mode is to be a home-body, to be the sort of person who orders the same thing each time he goes to a restaurant. My great failing as a high school athlete was that I never had the reckless abandon that most sports require in one form or another. But there on that boat, hands trembling, I imagined the feeling of the lid shaking underneath my feet as the boat picked up speed, and I felt a little goose of pleasure shimmy up my back.
I jumped in the water, I planted my feet on the board, I held tight to the rope, and I very rapidly tumbled into the water as the boat started up. Of the four or five of us on the boat, I was the least skilled at our lid-skiing, but when I think of that day all these years later, I don’t really think about my time in the water, I think of the minutes before that, when I figured out that we were doing something a little different, something a little dangerous. I remember that shiver of excitement that contradicted my normal inclination toward safety. I remember the sharp clarity that came from risking something vital.
That feeling is what we’re looking for in fiction, whether we admit that to ourselves or not. Risk is everywhere in good writing, but too often, the idea of risk in fiction gets boiled down to stylistic decisions that depart from convention. Ask the average reader to list a few writers that take big risks, and you’ll likely hear about the expansiveness of David Foster Wallace or the minimalism of Raymond Carver or something along those lines. Now, don’t get me wrong. Those guys are absolutely taking huge risks by playing with reader expectations and by using form to broaden the experience of reading their fiction, but the truth is, great writers risk something with character, plot, style, structure, and every other part of their writing. Yes, Carver’s stories strip narrative down to its bare-bones, but what of the risks he takes with voice? Or character? Or plot? We tend to lose those things in the shuffle.
Speaking of Risk is going to focus on an examination of the full-range of risky behavior being undertaken in contemporary fiction. I want to understand those risks. I want to understand why, captured by the thrill of standing on that flimsy piece of plastic, I forgot to be afraid for a few minutes.
Christopher Lowe is that author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.