There are two questions I ask myself repeatedly about my writing until I’m so far along in a project I don’t need to ask them anymore. They are:
1. Who are you writing this for?
2. What do you hope to accomplish with this work?
It’s truly the best way to check in with yourself when you sit down to write. When the page feels at its blankest, you can immediately fill it by answering those questions.
Who is this for? What do I want it to do?
Sometimes the answers are:
So I can not hate myself today.
And sometimes the answers are:
I want to do new things with perspective I’ve never done before because that sounds fun and interesting and is frankly kind of a turn-on.
To impress the shit out of them them or at least make them laugh, because Jesus we all could use a laugh.
Or sometimes the answers are:
To make people feel less alone in the world.
I could keep going, because there’s never a wrong answer and also they are all mostly true all the time. The thing I always return to after this brief and simple exercise is that making art of any kind is an act of optimism. To make art is to traffic in beliefs. The belief that you have something to say, that it’s important to say it. And also the belief that someone specific might want to witness it in some way and gain something from it.
Every day I wake up and write my way into believing in myself and the world around me. I ask the questions, and the answers that I need are there. And with them, I can create at least a sliver of urgency. And that’s all I need to get going.
A few words from some others that have been helpful to me lately:
John Waters on his schedule:
“Monday through Friday, I’m in that room right there,” he says, motioning behind himself to a small office, where he starts writing at 8 a.m. “Not 7:59 a.m., not 8:01 a.m.—at 8 a.m. And every day I think, Oh I can’t do it, and at 8:01 a.m. I’m doing it. We go until about 11, 11:30, then I run my business in the afternoons. I’ve always done that. Done that for 40 years.”
Lauren Groff on questions:
“Novels come out of a dark shadow on the heart, something that you need hundreds of pages to shine light into; stories, for me, start from a smaller explosion of light. To put it another way, a story often asks a handful of questions; a novel asks hundreds of questions. Novel questions breed while you sleep so that you wake up in the morning with even more questions.”
Cathy Park Hong on comedy as a narrative device:
“With comedy, you’re making an argument, right? Not all comedy is like this, but the kind of comedy that, say, Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce or Ali Wong does—they’re trying to make a point. There is a kernel truth they’re trying to get at, but they also know if they throw the truth at you, you’re not going to listen. Tommy Pico says he uses comedy like a Trojan horse. The punchline has this element of surprise. Comedy, as an argument, is trying to convince you of some unpleasant truth that you wouldn’t otherwise face.”
Rabih Alameddine on storytelling.
“In my opinion, one of the storyteller’s primary jobs—and one that I think we’re losing—is to entertain. The storyteller’s job is also to move people and create a relationship between the reader and the book…In my opinion, a storyteller must try to move the listener in such a way that they do not just empathize with the story—because that’s easy—but actually feel something.”
Kyle Chayka on Uniqlo and Sally Rooney:
“Life is just passing moments of beauty; your friends and lovers are all you have. We don’t know where we’re going, but at least our clothes won’t get in the way.”
A reminder: there is a Mini #1000wordsofsummer coming up soon! Oct 2-7. If you’re not signed up yet, and are interested, join us here.
Have a gorgeous day.
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 Helio Foundation and the Louisiana Solar Fund.