Contemplating the Through Lines
Some housekeeping, first:
I will be doing another Mini #1000wordsofsummer, starting February 7, and running for six days. You can sign up for it here. There will be no Craft Talks during this time, which means I will return to this space on (I think) Feb 14, but possibly Feb 21.
My memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice this week. You can purchase a signed and personalized edition of it at Blue Cypress Books here in New Orleans, or a signed edition of it from Loyalty Books in Washington, DC or Books are Magic in Brooklyn, or non-signed versions of it basically anywhere you buy books.
If you’re in New Orleans, I have one last event this week, 2/2, at Octavia Books with my accountability partner, Anne Gisleson. After that, I am going to take a long fucking nap from being myself.
I’ve been thinking so much about the through lines of a story this week. All the threads that move through your work and hold it all together even if they’re thin and delicate; not tenuous or fragile necessarily, but just sort of gently visible, close to translucent. Subtext is extremely stimulating to me. So is hitting someone over the head with an idea. I love thinking about the balance of it all. In my mind’s eye I see the through lines as coming together in a taut, thick, ropy braid of all these kinds of themes, ideas, feelings. As I visualize them, maybe they’re even multi-colored. By the end of the project, the braid must always hold steady. The braid will be so thick as to be indestructible.
Katharina Fritsch, Schädel (Skull)
I’ve been looking at the bigger picture of my new novel as I prepare to dive back into it more fully, wondering what those through lines are, or could be. But I’m also working on a pitch for a television adaptation for one of my books, and contemplating how to best establish them there.
These are two different kinds of projects, that require, in many ways, different kinds of storytelling, but they both need through lines. Every story does. How do I hold together a story of a fictional life that spans fifty years and all of the other characters swirling around in support of that life? And how do I hold together six episodes of a television show that juggles all these different characters, their needs, their concerns, their idiosyncrasies, their actions?
This week I made lists of what I want to talk about — the “aboutness” of these projects — what my big ideas are that I want to express to the world. If you could say anything to the world, what would it be? That’s how I feel about my work. This is my one shot to potentially communicate to people on a big scale. (Well, it’s usually books I’m writing, so it’s a small scale, but it’s bigger than just me sitting at home writing in my journal.) I look at the world and think: What is important to me? But also: What I would be best suited to talk about?
For the adaptation I had to think about my intentions behind the original writing of the book. I even went back and read interviews I gave at the time. Those interviews were me talking to the world about what I had tried to say to them with my work. In a way, I had left a trail for myself.
For a novel-in-progress it means creating a document that will be in motion throughout the process. Here is what this project is about — or at least what I hope it will be about. It will require tweaks along the way but by the end it should be clear what the through lines were all along. It is a document I can return to, as a resource, and as a stabilizing force. Another trail we can leave for ourselves.
Two nights ago I had drinks with someone I hadn’t seen in eight years, another writer, a poet, and I thought we were having perhaps the same conversation now as we did then, which was to say we gossiped, discussed our work, and love, and dreams for the future. Give or take a little pandemic talk. I can always count on writers for a good time.
At my book party in New Orleans this week someone I went to college with — and hadn’t seen in thirty years — showed up to surprise me, and I flew instantly back in time to who I was then: rough around the edges, wild, punky, a drinker, a seeker. I loved to read, loved to write. I am still some of these things. My former classmate is married now, with children, and a good job, where he helps people. The book party was different than his everyday life, but he had fun anyway, it seemed.
To me, the night felt like all the best readings I had done in my life. Here were people who loved books coming together. I said something, and they listened, but also, they said something to me, too, and I heard it all. It was an exchange of energy and ideas. I thought back to college, how I have always been drawn to people getting together to discuss books, how we all made a social life out of it. It wasn’t for everyone, but it worked for me beautifully.
Yesterday morning in meditation, I thought: My concerns have always been the same. They will always be the same. I am lucky. My through lines are clear and evident to me.
Do you know what the through lines are in your projects? Can you check in today? It’s never a waste of time, I think, to tend to them. No matter where you are in the process, your through lines, and the development of them, are what hold your project together.
See you all on the other side of February.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to the Isle de Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.