When people read or listen to Toni Jensen’s writing, they seem to always ask her about risky business.
At first, she was taken aback by this. But after having the question repeated enough times, she realized that a lot of her work, from an imagistic level to a content level, is the result of risk — that just wasn’t how she had framed it in her mind. To Jensen, she was simply doing what she needed to do to write what she needed to write.
“It made me realize that people do fall back on what’s comfortable,” she said, “and that sometimes, getting a good effect in writing requires pushing us outside of our comfort zones a little bit.”
Jensen will deliver her Brown Bag titled “What’s at Stake? Writing that Pushes Past Risk Toward Reward” at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
Jensen is the Chautauqua Writers’ Center prose writer-in-residence for Week Eight. She is the author of a story collection, From the Hilltop, and currently teaches at the University of Arkansas and Institute of American Indian Arts. She was previously a writer-in-residence in 2011.
Jensen plans to talk about risk-taking in terms of language, image and content in her lecture. In other words, she will talk about pushing the boundaries of prose writing on both a broader and smaller level.
“I think sometimes people are shy or hesitant about writing about controversial content,” she said.
This idea draws from subject areas in Jensen’s own writing. For example, she is working on a collection, called Cowboyistan, about fracking and sex trafficking of indigenous women.
“These are risk-taking topics,” she said, “and to do research in those areas requires some risk.”
But what constitutes a risk?
Jensen mentioned popular fiction one might pick up at an airport as something that does not constitute a risk because it likely uses language in expected ways.
“Oftentimes, our first impulse in writing, and (in) most mass-produced popular fiction, relies on a steady stream of cliches,” she said.
For example, a writer may describe a blue sky, a majestic mountain or green grass.
“And so moving away from the thing that comes to mind first — perhaps even moving away from the thing that comes to mind second — is what constitutes risk, or what can help produce something risky and exciting at the level of image or language,” she said.
As far as what constitutes risk for content, Jensen said it is “very individual.”
“For me, going around and talking to sex traffickers and women who’ve been trafficked, that requires some risk,” she said. “For some other people, it may be having a conversation with your mother about a big incident that happened in childhood; that would be a big risk.”
Or perhaps a risk would be traveling to Ireland or Spain by oneself, whether it be for research, writing or inspiration.
Whatever the risk ends up being, Jensen hopes listeners will learn to push the boundaries and think about how “risk-taking can offer reward … (and yield) a good result by thinking more broadly about how they approach the experience of writing or how they approach revising.”