The Wisdom of Winslow: Write the Story You’re Afraid to Write

By David Corbett

Brief introductory note: I’m off to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference where I’m serving on the faculty in the novel workshop, so may not be able to respond to all comments promptly, especially in the afternoon. My apologies on that front, but I will check in when I can.

As some of you know, I was on the faculty for the Book Passage Mystery Conference that ran from Thursday through Sunday this past week, and I’m both exhausted and exilerated. Not only did we have our usual group of highly motivated participants, we had an incredible faculty and wonderful guests, including Don Winslow, Robert Dugoni, Cara Black, Tarquin Hall, D.P. Lyle, Karin Slaughter and many others.

Among my many duties, I was asked to introduce Don Winslow.

Don’s a writer I greatly admire, and whose most recent novel, Kings of Cool, has just been published to coincide with the release of the film Savages, based of Don’s novel of the same name. (Kings of Cool is a prequel to Savages.)

I based my introduction on a bit of a rant I made on the online group RARA AVIS, which is a conversational watering hole for lovers of noir and hardboiled crime fiction. The most relevant part of that rant-cum-introduction was this:

In his fifteen novels and counting, Don Winslow has created something unlike anything else in contemporary fiction, especially Savages and Kings of Cool. They’re like poetry and screenplays mashed up into fiction, and for some unholy reason it works.

He’s distilled the essence of crime writing down into its molten core and fashioned something strangely recognizable and yet utterly new.

He’s also one of the few crime writers I can think of who will be remembered not just for his body of work, but for a genuine, honest-to-God classic: Power of the Dog. That’s an incredible accomplishment. Only the greats pull it off.

Don could have come up and pimped his book and movie, but he didn’t. He loves the Book Passage conference and has taught quite a bit himself, so instead he gave a truly memorable talk about the nature of crime fiction. For me, that talk was the true highlight of the conference in a weekend full of them.

He began by noting a question he once received in an interview: Do you believe you write in a literary ghetto?

Don responded: “Yes. And I love my neighborhood.”

But Don explained he takes an expansive view of the genre, tracing its roots not just to the obvious progenitors but to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, originally performed in 458 B.C.

In those three plays, we see the warrior king Agamemnon murdered by his wife, Elektra, for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so he could go off to the Trojan War; we see their son, Orestes, faced with the terrible dilemma of needing to avenge his father’s death (or face the wrath of Apollo), but this necessitates the killing of his mother (which will incur the wrath of the Erinyes, or Furies).

Orestes goes through with the killing, and is set upon by the Furies until Athena steps in and conducts a trial, dramatizing the movement in Greek civilization from blood vengeance to the primacy of the court. When the jury is split evenly, Athena casts the deciding vote, and Orestes is set free.

Move ahead two millenia to Elizabethan England, and in Shakespeare’s two-part Henry IV we see the template for the gangster classic The Godfather. In both, a son who declines the mantle of leadership that’s his birthright turns around through the course of the drama and rises to his true destiny, that of king, or godfather.

Young Prince Harry abandons the saloons and brothels where he cavorts with the pugnaciously libertine Falstaff, and ascends through battles with his father’s enemies to the position of king—where he closes all the saloons and brothels. When Falstaff approaches him, seeking a personal favor on the basis of their old acquaintance, Prince Harry, now King Henry IV says, “I know thee not, old man.” He adds that he knew such a man once in his dreams, but now that he has awakened, “I do despise my dream.”

Michael Corleone isn’t a libertine, he’s a war hero—with a schoolteacher fiancée, Kay. But he too disavows his father’s realm, until the old man’s attacked, and Michael rises to the challenge of defending his father against his enemies, and ascends to his father’s place as leader. When Kay asks him if what she’s heard Is true, he’s responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, Michael lies to her face, then enters the room where his leadership is acknowledged, and shuts the door in her face.

It’s the same story.

Don then traced the lineage to Don Quixote and the picaresque novel, with its focus not on knights and ladies but rogues and scoundrels, a tradition that continued in the eighteenth century novels of Fielding and Smollett—stories that dwelt realistically with the underclass, a milieu richly explored again in the novels of Dickens, especially Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

If we expand our horizons in how we view the crime story, we needn’t be bothered with sniffy dismissals from our betters, because we understand that crime has always concerned itself with the defiant individual, the have-nots, and injustice.

He admitted that when he wrote Savages, stylistically so different from his other novels, he’d grown bored with his work, and feared readers had also. He decided to write the book he heard in his head.

He wrote the first 80 pages and handed it to his friend and collaborator and literary guardian angel, Shane Salerno, and said, “I’m not sure what I’ve got here. Either it’s great or I should pitch it and I can’t tell which.”

Shane read the pages and told him to put aside all his other projects and forge ahead with this one while he was still in this literary head space. He did, but remained terrified throughout that he might be committing a terrible blunder, or even professional suicide.

The rest, as they say, is history.

He exhorted the conferences participants to be daring, think big, embrace the larger canvas and, as he put it, “Write the story you’re afraid to write.”

He noted that you shouldn’t give up writing the book you think will get published, the one that publishers won’t reject out of hand, but nothing’s guaranteed, and how terrible to never have risen to the challenge to face the book you knew you had in you, but were too timid, too remiss, too cowed by the marketplace to get down in words.

* * * * *

So Murderateros, what book are you afraid to write? Have you at least started it? Can you see yourself returning to it? Have you already written it? How’d it go?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I’m not going with music this week, but with a spoken-word performance by the late comedian Mike DeStefano produced through The Moth.

Note: Prepare to cry.

I made reference to this piece in my own talk at the conference on the importance of facing honestly your own personal wounds to enhance the depth, texture, and richness of your fiction. 


(For a written version of Mike DeStefano’s talk, with some additional material, check out this piece from the New York Times).

13 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Winslow: Write the Story You’re Afraid to Write

  1. Shizuka

    The book I'm writing scares me. So did the last one.
    Not for the reasons Savages scared Don WInslow; I'm freaked out by having to bring my emotions (and fears) to the page. And also by looking deep inside myself; what if there's nothing there?

    Don's talk was funny and inspiring. Yours was also and made me cry.
    Great seeing you again, David.

  2. David Corbett

    Dear Shizuka:

    It was wonderful seeing you as well. You're such an energetic and cheerful spirit, despite what I'm sure you think are your dark places.

    Inside all of us there is a core of nothingness, the "I" of the storm. Consciousness is a kind of void, a pinhole of emptiness around which everything else in life swirls. If that's the nothing you're scared of, don't be. It's the egoless calm at the center of all things, the part of us that doesn't desire or suffer, but just is.

    But I think your fear is more that the stuff of your life, the tableaus within your memory, won't be worthy of the stories you want to write. To which I say: pppffffffft.

    Knowing you just the little I do, having spoken with you about your life and work, I would encourage you: Go there. It's not always fun. It's hard turning shame and guilt and fear into something positive. But the alternative is to live a meager lie of a life, and it will show in your fiction. Why do that?

    I loved what you told me about your story, and I want to urge you: Be brave. Keep going.

  3. Sarah W

    This sounds a bit flippant, but I'm afraid to talk about the book I'm afraid to write. The story isn't particularly original or significant to anyone else, but there are calluses to pare and walls to scale and bravery to build (and a couple of feelings to feel). And always that little voice telling me no one will care, anyway.

    Then again, Mr. DeStefano said he didn't want to tell his story, and I'm very glad he did.

    On a lighter note–true conversation this morning at 7:15am between two undercaffeinated people:

    "Sarah? *Sarah.*"


    "Weren't you going to leave early for that thing?"

    "Oh, shoot. Yeah, blame David Corbett. He got me hooked on Moth and I keep doing just one more–"

    "He's WHAT? You're doing WHAT?"

    "Huh? No, no–MOTH. It's people telling stories. Sheesh."

    "Right. Well, that makes more sense . . ."

  4. David Corbett

    It's easy to get hooked on Moth, Sarah. I sympathize. And I've been blamed for worse. (Yes, you made me laugh out loud.)

    As for the story you're afraid to talk about — there was a quote I repeated several times at the conference, from Simone de Beauvoir: She who talks to us form the depths of her lonelienss speaks to us of ourselves.

    Trust that.

  5. Larry Gasper

    It's the book I'm working on now that scares me, mostly because of the politics and other issues involved. It means putting myself out there which is something I'm not good at doing. I've found though, that I may be afraid of writing the book, but I'm not afraid of writing a page or two, so if I just focus on the daily work I'm fine. The book will take care of itself this way.

  6. Allison Davis

    I want a literary guardian angel. What a treat.

    My current manuscript is exactly that. I put aside the other to write what was boiling over in my head and letting it come out. I've stalled near the end and I think that's because I've hit some resistance in allowing myself to write that book, to get dirty and in the trenches with it, to let that stuff into my head. I'll take Larry's and Don's advice and write through that resistance, a page at a time.

    Sounds like the conference was great as usual, sorry I was out of town for the festivities.

  7. Pari Noskin

    Oh, hell, David. I read your post and then watched the video.
    Thank you for these tears; it was stunning.

  8. Allison Davis

    PS: I read this piece in the NYT a long time ago and cried like a baby but totally remember it. This is a nice way to hear the story.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    Great post. What a shame my own experiences of Book Passage were not so happy as the conference sounds fascinating.

    I'm a huge fan of Don Winslow's work, too. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of the Busted Flush reprint of A COOL BREEZE ON THE UNDERGROUND and loved it. Also think CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE is one of the best present-tense books out there. And SARTORI was just wonderful. In fact, why don't I just list his whole canon and have done with it …?

  10. PD Martin

    Cool trailer!

    I guess I've just written the story I'm afraid to write, because it's personal and delves into how I coped (or more appropriately didn't cope) with fertility problems. Strangely enough, I thought it would be cathartic, but it wasn't particularly.

  11. Reine

    I am writing the book that had scared me off for years. Now, when I barely have time or ability, I am finally doing it.You are right. Facing those wounds is making it possible. It is constant, though. There is no end to the wounding, no end to the facing. Thank you, David. This was… it.

  12. Susan Shea

    Hmmm…Mike DeStefano's observation was perfect. On the Harley on the highway, blowing all that death away. Yup – I get it and it's such a wonderful image. Thanks.

Comments are closed.