“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
Wow! Here’s something that comes as a big surprise to me: Thornton Wilder, one of my all-time favorite writers, often suffered from acute writer’s block from over his forty-year career. It first flared up when he was working on his debut novel. He had a publisher, a contract, and a deadline — and suddenly, he couldn’t write! He struggled to finish his book and was disappointed to find out that he lacked the discipline of professional writers who made a habit of writing a certain number of pages (or words) a day.
Needless to say, Thornton managed to overcome his momentary block and went on to win Pulitzers for both fiction and drama. Quite a guy!
Here’s something else that jumped out at me about Thornton: his debut novel, The Cabala, unfolds in five parts and seems incredibly complex and ambitious in scope. It’s based on a year he spent in Rome after graduating from Yale, and in it he tackles some weighty themes: class structure, religion, unrequited love, even suicide. While he showed strong style, it seems that the book didn’t hang together all that well.
But while this first serious work exhibited some of the weaknesses of a fledgling author, it also displayed his unique voice, command of language, and a spirited willingness to tackle some of the universal themes that are the stuff of great novels.
In Webster’s, the word “overreach “ has two major definitions: 1) “to reach above and beyond ,” and 2) “to defeat (oneself) by seeking to do or gain too much.” To write dangerously — to write about what matters to us — it seems to me that we have to “reach above and beyond.” We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. When we do, of course, we take a risk: we may “defeat” ourselves in some way. But the biggest defeat of all, it seems to me, is not to stretch ourselves and go out on a limb: Better to overreach than to play it safe and under perform. So let’s stretch ourselves and “risk going too far” so we can find out just how far we can go. Write on!