Everything Is a Problem Until You Solve It
I keep thinking about how I want to reboot this newsletter — what the big idea of it all is — and sometimes I think the answer is just to scale it down entirely. Stop trying to frame it in some digestible narrative and just talk very simply about what you’re doing.
I write these letters about my work because I hope these thoughts are in some way helpful and because I want to connect with you and because writing is a lonely art form and when I put this information out there the simple act of it makes me feel a little less alone in the world. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re reading it. Thanks for showing up.
Lola came to visit
Anyway, here are three things I was thinking about this week with my novel-in-progress:
There is a chapter in the book which begins with a character about to fly from England to America for the first time in a year to see old friends and family. I wanted her to take a book with her to keep her company on the plane and for the rest of her journey.
I went down the wormhole of trying to find the book for a while, with seemingly little success. I had to consider that she was an American, with American tastes, but I felt that she would be reading what was popular in the UK. The chapter takes place thirty years ago, so I looked at the list of books that were popular that year. All that would surface initially were the same kinds of bestsellers that have been popular forever, and she wasn’t necessarily the kind of person to read a commercial bestseller. I thought about books that were popular twenty years before that, because maybe she would be the kind of person who would read something much later than when it was cool.
And who would have written the book, I wondered. I wanted her to be reading a book by a woman, I decided, but so many of the books showing up in the historical record were written by men. (Kristen said, “Would she even say to herself, ‘I wish I were reading a book by a woman?’” which really melted my brain.) Then I thought maybe she was reading some old philosophy book, looking for some deep existential answers, and that shifted my research entirely for a while. But I have since returned to the idea that she would be reading a novel, so there went another hour of my life.
This book, this fucking book. It’s just an accessory in the scene. I’m just dropping it in her carry-on bag. She doesn’t even read it! She sleeps on the plane! This fucking book.
Initially, it was just a way to remind us of what year we are in, to secure the story in a place in time. But also, it needed to be right for her, for what she was going through in her life at that moment. And in an ideal world it would connect somehow to the larger themes of the book. So it has become much more than a prop in the end. Thinking about this book forced me to assess all of these things, revisit where I was at with this character and the novel at large. It was a good check-in, actually. Even though I feel frustrated that I still haven’t figured out the right book yet.
Don’t worry, I’ll find it.
This week I’ve been writing down names. Rocco, Ned, Marta. First names and last names, together and separately. Beatriz Lima. I grab them from articles and newscasts and non-fiction books I’ve been reading. Real-life names. Billie, Kendrick, Malcolm. From the acknowledgments sections, too. Izquierdo. I cannot shake Izquierdo. I’m doing this because some of the names I’ve come up with in my book are fine but not amazing. The most accurate name in the book so far is Frieda. That is the name I love best. I return to it when I need encouragement. If I can find one good name I can find another. If I can name someone Frieda I can finish this book.
This morning I was thinking about how important it is to know how to talk about our work, how we should be able to claim ownership of the thing we are working on. To be able to say: I am writing a novel or a short story collection or a play or a screenplay, and this is the thing I am making right now, and it is going to be this long and it will take me this amount of time to write it. When I am done this very specific thing will exist. To create the architecture is to create a space of safety and security.
But I always want to feel like I am making something new. That it’s the first time anything like this has existed. That naming it, putting it in a conventional box, might confine it in some way. I started thinking (again, for I have gone down this path before) about how important it was to be able to think outside of categories. That the difference between an essay collection and a memoir can be blurry, or a novel versus a linked story collection, or a poem versus a short story, and that allowing yourself to think of something as just “the story you’re telling” can be the healthiest thing you can do for your work.
I was also thinking about how creating a calendar for your project is healthy, but we have to keep in mind that dates sometimes shift because life happens, is always happening, and the last thing any of us need is to feel bad about our work or develop a negative relationship with it, especially if we are working on a long-term project.
When we are making our art we must bend all of the resources and possibilities to work for us, not the other way around.
Anyway, this push and pull is part of the process. Everything works until it doesn’t. Everything is helpful until it isn’t. Everything is a bad idea until it’s a good idea. Everything is a problem until you solve it.
I hope you have a gorgeous week.
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 New Orleans Abortion Fund.