Today you will write 1000 words. You will do this because you love ideas. All the ideas you have written down in the pages of your notebook, on scraps of paper, receipts, cocktail napkins, ticket stubs. Snapshots of texts between you and a friend. All the ideas you email to yourself when you’re walking down the street, so you won’t forget them, pausing on the sidewalk, while people push past you. Ideas that wake you up in the middle of the night, forcing you to turn on a light and scribble it down, just so you can wake up in the morning and maybe make yourself smile with it. An idea burning a hole in your pocket. Big ideas or small ones, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all fuel. Ideas that turn into words that turn into sentences that turn into something new and surprising. One thousand words starts with one idea, straight from you.
Today’s guest contributor is Elissa Washuta, author of the stunning essay collection White Magic, which The New York Times called “beguiling and haunting.” Her donation pick is Lowland Center, and today she’s talking about process, focus, and holograms.
“I never closely tracked my writing process until people began asking me how I wrote the book they just read. I have no idea how that happened. A mystical process, or one I just never paid attention to, because all my attention was on the essay rather than its making.
So lately, I’ve been keeping track of how it’s going. I didn’t intend to make myself start writing a new book until I was done promoting my last one, but then I wanted to write. Here’s how it’s been going: first, I took interest in something, and I got wrapped up in it, because it was a situation with an unfolding narrative I found compelling. I found myself spending a good amount of my free time learning about this thing, and then compulsively bookmarking things I read online, and then, one day when I was hauling canned cat food up from the basement, a sentence implanted itself in my brain. The sentence wouldn’t leave, and then it spawned another, and then I had to capture them in a Word document so I wouldn’t forget them.
I resisted the paragraph—the timing was bad. I couldn’t start a new essay. I need long, long stretches of hyper-focus in order to make an essay. I need to hand over whole days. But I couldn’t risk losing the sentences, because they’d become precious to me. So I wrote my paragraph. For two months, all I had was that paragraph and its fully realized voice, an uncountable number of bookmarks, and my fear that I took too long to write the thing and now the window is closed. I kept thinking over the question of what the following paragraphs would be—a question that I didn’t feel I could really answer without having some sense of the essay’s form. It won’t come if I try writing to see what comes out. There will be words I can use later, but the form doesn’t come that way for me. I can’t make an outline. My brain just has to draw up the blueprints while I’m thinking about something else.
About a week ago, overwhelmed by the fact of being reachable by anyone in the world at any time, I decided to mostly stop using social media for a little while. While I was trying to learn how to fly a video game airplane, my mind was listlessly wandering back and forth over the not-yet-existent-essay, not actively problem-solving but just thinking about some minutiae of the subject matter, and then, suddenly, there was the form of the essay. I wrote down some notes, and then the next day, when I was supposed to be working on something else, I wrote more notes, and then I couldn’t stop writing notes, and then there was the shape of the essay, an almost three-dimensional holographic thing in my imagination. Next I will have to begin to write into the form, and I’ll soon begin failing, and I’ll wonder whether I can even execute this vision I had, and in the end, the real essay will and will not look like the hologram I imagined—it always turns out better. I have to remember that so I can start again.”
Have a good day with your ideas. I believe in you.