How to Write without Writing
I have some upcoming events:
April 8 - New Orleans, LA
Sadie Dupuis/Cry Perfume event at The White Roach
April 18 - New Orleans, LA
Katy Simpson Smith/The Weeds event at Blue Cypress Books
May 16 - Paris, France (in person!)
In conversation with Lauren Collins at The American Library in Paris
I threw out my back sometime this weekend, although it’s probably never really actually triggered in the exact moment it goes out, but instead it’s a series of events that leads up to it over a few days or a week. Or, if we’re being honest here, over a couple of a decades, beginning and ending with this goddamn screen. I saw some tweet this week where a woman implored people in their twenties to start stretching now and I thought: I AGREE. Don’t worry, this is not a newsletter about stretching, although this is not not a newsletter about stretching.
Anyway, these past few days the idea of even sitting down to type at length made me feel a little sick to my stomach, so instead I did the last bit of research I needed to do for the novel. (God, I hope it was the last bit. I have been working on this book for freaking ever.)
I consider this part of writing without actually doing the writing the words part. Like going to a museum or a movie so I can shift my brain a bit. Or talking about reading or writing with a friend to see what they’ve been thinking about lately. Or eavesdropping on strangers, specifically so you can listen to the way they talk, maybe assess their accents and try to figure out where they might be originally from, or perhaps pay serious attention to their pauses or pacing. Sometimes I just listen to people to see if they’re actually funny or just think they’re funny when they’re not or don’t realize they’re being funny when they actually are. You get the idea.
Because I am such a character driven writer, I am usually most interested in what people have to say, what their backstories are. Recently, I had been in touch with some extremely generous archivists regarding information about a particular field in which one of my characters works. I wanted to have a better understanding of my character’s tasks and also the way the industry had changed over the years. The archivists gave me access to interviews with people who had worked in the field — and so, while I sat, wincing, in bed, I dove in and started reading.
The questions the archivists had asked them were perfect for character development: Where were you born and when? What was your family like? What your hobbies? How did you became interested in the field? What it was like to be a woman in the field? What were the challenges of it? What did you like about it? These people were real and interesting. Everyone is real and interesting. People are worth our time, if we give them a shot. I always think about how all the best stories are sitting right outside our front doors. If we just ask the right questions, but also learn how to pay attention and listen.
I read and took notes in my notebook quite happily for a few days. I tried to figure out if I could answer all the same questions for my characters as were asked of these real-life people. Occasionally my brain butted up against itself and thought, “I’m not doing real work,” because I wasn’t typing. But then I remembered this was the work I could do right then, and also it was important.
And perhaps there was a slight relief to not be actively writing but instead just thinking, consuming, daydreaming. Still keeping my characters alive in my head, knowing them a little bit more, as I contrasted them with these people I was meeting through these interviews. It also strangely rejuvenated me so late in the game on this book that I’ve been working on for so long. Learning just a little bit more about my subject brightened my mind a bit.
In the end I’ll probably add only a handful of sentences to the book. Would you even know they were there? Could a reader even feel them? I think so. But anyway I can feel them. I’ll know. And I’ll have felt like I did a better and more complete job because of it all.
It’s jasmine season right now and we are all walking around drunk with the scent
Yesterday, I went to acupuncture for my back. A guy down the block, I like him a lot. I’m not a fan of needles but that shit really works and sometimes we have to take our medicine. Sit still, be quiet, and you might just feel better. And maybe I love the romance of the idea of how all these pathways are connected in our bodies from one end to the other, and these little needles can bring them all to life and heal our pain or at least soothe it. At the end of the session, as the acupuncturist took out the needles, he mentioned something about releasing the bad qi. It has to end up somewhere, right?
Don’t worry, this is not a newsletter about needles, although this is not not a newsletter about needles.
I’m leaving the comments open today so you can share some ways you write without writing.
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 Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children and Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop.