I had this moment the other day where I woke up at 6 am (with a jolt, that whole business) and realized that there was one crucial structural error I had made with my book. I had already submitted the manuscript a few days before, so then I frantically asked if I could make the change and resubmit it, so I spent the morning changing it, feeling a little desperate about the whole thing, and now you know what it’s like to be in my head on any given morning. Just waking up, freaking out about something I’ve written.
But I’ll tell you what, the next night I slept like a goddamn baby.
All this to say I am officially in the waiting game stage of writing a book, so I am opening up comments to non-subscribers today who have writing questions, which I can try to answer either today or in the future. Paid subscriptions are of course welcome, too. 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. Last week I donated to New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation and the New Orleans Women and Childrens’ Shelter.
This was written glibly and in a moment of panic about my own work. I wanted the service for myself. But I suspect, based on your likes and comments, it’s relatable to those in the midst of your own work, so I decided to tackle it today for all of us.
I can’t tell you what the reader will think of your story, and I can’t solve your existential crisis for you. (By the way – if you’re writing any kind of book, not just a memoir, you’re guaranteed an existential crisis or three in the writing of it. Also, this is America 2020, so let’s just presume crisis, shall we?) But what I can suggest to you is you alter your attitude.
Stop thinking of it as the story of you and instead start thinking of as the story you have to tell. How can you, in the writing of it, make it interesting? What will your approach be that will make it feel different or special? Will it be in an innovative structure? Will it be in the most gorgeous, breathtaking language? Will it be in the timing of it all, where you sink emotional moment after emotional moment? Will it be written in a hooky, addictive, page-turning style? Will it be rich with captivating cliffhangers, irresistible to the reader? How can you tell it in a way that has never been told before? How can you write a wholly unique story?
Life is a series of moments, some bigger, some smaller, and that’s it. You can hang them together like forgotten Christmas lights left up year-round; or like magnets holding up beloved memorabilia on a refrigerator, a postcard from long ago or a photo booth strip, ; or like flyers advertising services or looking for lost dogs on a community board in a café; or like signs promoting opposing local candidates stuck side-by-side in competition, on neighbors’ front lawns; or like clothes drying pinned to a line, flapping in the wind, beneath the sunshine. Your job is to arrange these moments into a beautiful, captivating display.
Stop thinking of it as your life. Start thinking of as a story. Your story will be interesting because of how you tell it.
Most favorite arrangement in the neighborhood
After winning a tiny writing prize I am suffering from a debilitating fear of failure. Thank you for that prescription.
I am writing this response with the presumption that you are not writing anything at all now, based on the word “debilitating.”
Success fucks with your head. I have had my ups and downs in my career and I assure you I never knew exactly when I was supposed to be enjoying myself and almost always felt like I was supposed to be going back to work already. Work is the safe spot for me. Right now it does not sound safe to you. The question is how can you recover your relationship with your writing. Can you remember what you loved about it in the first place?
Can you make a list of good things writing does for you? How it makes you feel? A short list for me, for example, would be:
Helps me clarify my thoughts and feelings
Keeps me company when I feel bored or alone
Gives me a sense of accomplishment when I finish a project, or even just for the day
Look at your list. Do you want to lose access to all those positive things?
Make your writing about no one else but yourself. Do not write for an imagined audience. Do not write for a distant panel of judges. When you sit down to write, every day, announce to yourself something like (but less corny, obviously), “I am writing this for the love of writing.” You could even put it on the top of the page. You could even write it 100 times in a row. Until you believe it again.
Congratulation, you won a prize, friend. It’s not nothing, a prize! But also: it’s just a prize. They come and go, and all that remains is the writing. So get back to work already.
Need a prescription?