The Best Use of Your Brain
It’s Carnival season, and I’m trying to get as much work done as I can before I submit to the haze. Possibly I might not submit to the haze as deeply as I have in the past. I am enjoying being busy with my writing. We will see.
I have started to think of this new book I’m working on as: the novel I wrote in my 51st year. Time is looser than ever, but attaching projects to a specific year or age or even decade feels like something solid to me. Daily, I cannot tell you what I do with my time. I walk the same streets, I write, I think, I talk. Everything feels fuzzy still, and maybe will forever. (And maybe always did?) But the projects, the books, they’re the things that are evidence that I am doing something with my time.
I scribble, I type, and the pages add up. Last year I wrote 30,000 words in the summer and fall, and they were useful, even if it was just the act, the gesture, grounding me. Although I might only use half of those words, now that I look at them. Perhaps it was the thinking that I did that was the most helpful. But also: the dirtying of my hands in the earth of this story. That is meaningful.
I have been trying to figure out how to organize this book forever. How to find the framework to hold the story. For a while now, I have known what the story is, the decades it spans, the characters, the themes, but I did not know the exact best way to convey it. I had brainstormed a few different structures, and some of them were good ideas, but perhaps not great. I took a run at a few of them, but I couldn’t wholly commit. My mind just shifted things around. I wanted to pull the trigger, but my brain was telling me I wasn’t ready.
While I was on book tour, I started thinking about how I put together other books of mine. I thought about how I developed All Grown Up: I made a list of the character’s complaints and concerns as a single woman, and that was it, I had a chapter outline. I wrote 90 pages of it in just a few weeks. It was easy once I started thinking of it that way. Here’s what she was sick of, here’s what she wished people knew about her situation, here are the annoyances of her life. For better or for worse. And then I found my way in.
I thought: I just have to do that exact thing, figure it out that way. All I had to do was make a list of these characters’ concerns. But it wasn’t that simple, and the book was fighting me. What works for one book might not work for another; I have certainly learned that in the last fifteen years of writing. I was just trying out different exercises, putting my characters through their paces, putting the character of The Book through its paces.
Then two things happened. One is that I read Tom Perrotta’s forthcoming novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, which is effortlessly structured, deceptively easy in appearance. But also the wires were clearly taut underneath it all – it wouldn’t have worked otherwise. I am a fan of things feeling seamless, not show-offy. There is such a specific genius to that. I didn’t want to structure my book like his book, but I liked the way it felt, the way it hummed. And I liked the way I felt when I read it. It was like riding in a car with a smooth new engine. Was that what I was looking for? The engine?
The second thing that happened is I took off from twitter this month. So helpful! There’s something about twitter that makes me contemplate myself in the wrong way, or at least in a way that is disconnected from the act of writing fiction. (We will cast aside the negativity on twitter, the time suck of it all for the moment; I am just talking about the act of tweeting.) My tweets are meant to be immediately read, as a reflection of myself, even if they are not about me, necessarily. There is a part of my brain that likes to play and have a fun time and entertain people so it sometimes feels pretty good to participate in that conversation.
But writing fiction is a slow burn. It’s about writing something that will last, and does not necessarily fill immediate attention needs. I can do both at the same time, tweet and write fiction, and I certainly have. But I write better fiction when I’m not tweeting. It’s just a fact. And so when I take time off twitter, it’s about creating a boundary for my brain. And thinking: What kind of writing should I be doing right now?
It’s always essential to contemplate the kinds of writing I’m doing, and assess how they make me feel, what they accomplish for me, if they move me forward in life, or if I’m merely treading water. When I write a tweet, it makes me feel one way, when I write an essay, it makes me feel another way. When I answer a written q&a, when I write one of these newsletters, when I work on my novel, when I work on a television pitch, these give me different feelings, activate different parts of my brain. They can please me, challenge me, help me to progress, all in different ways.
Can we all take a look at the kinds of things we write, what they do for us, how they open (or close off) our writing? Are we certain we’re using our time wisely? Is the more casual writing worth it? (It certainly can be!) I’m not talking about the distractions here. I’m just talking about contemplating what we get out of everything.
And I don’t think there’s any sort of moral judgement that needs to happen with this kind of examination. There’s no judgement of our core being, because there is no right or wrong answer: we are neither bad or good people for how we use our writing time. Being productive does not mean we are being virtuous.
You know who doesn’t give a fuck about productivity is Sid
Anyway, after all this thinking, the back and forth, the novel has truly clicked into gear. I have landed on a structure, and I’m sticking to it. This is it, I am in. This is what the book is going to be. It feels fun to write it, and a real relief to have finally made a choice. More than anything else, I am writing something I would want to read myself. And in the end, the final trigger came down to the same old things: after I did a pile of work, I shut out all the online noise, and I read a book that shifted me.
I’m leaving the comments open today to everyone so you can tell me how your project is going, where you’re directing your brain or energy when you sit down to work. And remember: just showing up for yourself on the page in the first place is pretty goddamn great.
Sending love to our big beautiful cohort,
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 Krewe of House Floats Giving Fund.