A Few Good Questions
On the value of our time and energy and more
Tonight you can attend a free virtual event hosted by Bookends & Beginnings with myself and brilliant contributors Christopher Gonzalez, Courtney Sullivan and Camille T. Dungy. (Register here.) They are all personality plus people so get ready for some fun.
Also I write another newsletter on midlife changes called The 52 Project which is usually subscription only, but this week it’s free. I spent a lot of time working on this piece about the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver and aging and bodies. So give it a whirl if that sounds of interest.
I loved this conversation between Cord Jefferson, the writer-director of “American Fiction” which I am going to see this weekend, and Mike Schur, the creator of “The Good Place” which I have rewatched like five times. In particular, this bit from Cord struck me:
People have asked me what lessons I brought from journalism into other stuff I’ve worked on, and one of the most important lessons, which I apply when I go into any project, is Why now? As a journalist, you approach everything that you’re writing with the question, Why does this make sense in the world for this specific moment? Why should I spend my time and energy on it?
If you’re just starting a project now, are you asking yourself questions like these?
Cord is speaking more about writing to the moment, which is something that I think is more relevant for shorter term projects, but I know plenty of you out there are writing articles, essays, newsletters and the like. I like the simplicity of his questions. I like the implication that we need to understand the “value” of a project, and not necessarily a financial one, and that we need to recognize our own “value” in the equation, too, though our time and energy are not easily quantifiable, especially when it comes to creative projects. (I would shudder to do the math on how many hours I spend on writing a book.)
Of course, at least one of these questions does seem less relevant to a longer term project. Obviously you could start a novel now, finish it, sell it, publish it three years later (or however long it takes) and it might not feel particularly of the moment anymore. I always encourage people who want to write long form projects to not write to trends but instead to write about the thing that interests them most, in the purest way. Trends fade, but your tastes hang around for a long time.
You could, however, replace “in the world” with “for me” in that sentence and I think that would work nicely.
Anyway I liked this interview a lot. I meditated on this for a while, too:
I’d rather be working on a grand failure than a mediocre success.
I shiver in fear of mediocrity, don’t you? The good news is, the project doesn’t have to be great for a long time while you’re working on it. In fact most projects are messy and middling until they…aren’t. Until you put in the work while you strive for something new and special and vibrant and different and unique. Until you get there, to the good—or maybe great, if you’re lucky—version of your project. Do not fear the failure. We are going to fail before we succeed, that is guaranteed, and our egos just have to take it. We take it, and we learn from it, because we are dying to make the best art we can.
Before I send you off into the weekend, I wanted to give you a little update about the book! We got incredible press and made it on all kinds of delightful bestseller lists, including Indie Booksellers, USA Today, and Washington Post, as well as a whole bunch of regional indie bookseller lists which made me smile real hard. Honestly so fucking thrilling. Are you kidding me? I am THRILLED.
And thank you people who bought it! You also rule!
Will we be on those lists next week? Who even knows? But for one glorious week it was a really good time.
Sending love and gratitude to you all,