The Story You're Dying to Tell
It’s been a weird week. I broke my ankle (don’t ask) and have been laid up in bed and it’s been storming like crazy in New Orleans, and I have been trapped with the terrible news of the world, when I might ordinarily just get up and walk away from the screen for a while if I needed a break from the turmoil that is America. It’s a good idea to take breaks – we know that, right? A smart person once told me, “You can’t help other people if you’re a hot mess yourself.”
But here I am, me and the computer screen, sitting in bed together, a bad romance if I ever saw one. I’m taking care of myself a little bit, though. Before I open my laptop with that satisfying, addictive swish, I’ve been starting every day with my notebook, checking in with myself more than anything else, but also thinking about what I want my next project to be – because it could be anything I want. Because any of us can write whatever we want.
I was trying to think about the feelings I had before I started any of my other books. Eight times I’ve done this, sunk my hands deep into my well, as if there were a treasure at the bottom of it I could capture and drag up to the surface. Some hijacked gold coins tossed aside for safety or a lost diamond fallen and forgotten. Or perhaps 80,000 errant words waiting to be put in their proper place.
What is the story you’re dying to tell? That’s one of the questions I keep asking myself. What is the story you’ve been waiting to tell your entire life? If you could write any kind of book – anything at all – what would it be? But also, what books have you admired recently? What new forms have blown your mind? And what about books that you have loved in the past that have stuck with you? What were your influences, and what are your aspirations?
My fig tree tipped over with the weight of the water, I had noticed, the last time I limped to the back door to let the dog out. No sun for days. I planted all these things last week and now I can’t even tend to them, just have to hope all the rain is doing the work instead.
I gently made my way back to bed. The books of others spread all over my room. I thought about those authors, and their ah-ha moments that led to the creation of these works. If you ask any of them, they’ll be able to tell you how they knew, when they knew. And none of us could ever re-create their experiences. We have to figure it out for ourselves.
The truth is the best ideas I’ve had have taken me years to put together. All those years of living and then I could finally see. The idea itself took two seconds, of course. Everything swirled together at once and then there was a brief burn and glow. But my best books, my best moments, were the stories I’ve been writing my entire life.
And while we’re on the topic of life, I say to this person who is here in bed, her foot propped up, the empty bottle of Advil on the nightstand, in this city, in this country, in this world, at this time, I say: What do you want to be when you grow up? A question I’ve been asking forever, but still relevant, always relevant. What kind of writer do you want to be? And what kind of person do you want to be? What are you putting out there? What do you want to say to the world? What kind of book do you want to see on the shelf with your name on it? This is forever, this book. Picture the shelf, picture the cover, picture the person picking it up, and what they’re looking for. You can say anything you want to this person. In this book. What do you want them to know? You can reach out to them now. What do you want to say to them?
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Look out for each other,
You are reading Craft Talk, 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 support Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence and The Rolling Library.