What is Felt and Known
So many people I know are in so much motion right now, and I hope we are all taking some time to breathe. One extremely cleansing deep breath just might get us through the rest of the day. (But sometimes we would even settle for the next hour.)
I finished my German tour and have been in Copenhagen for a few days visiting my friend Siri. Yesterday we walked all around this amazing city and talked about books and life and our childhoods and she showed me her favorite park growing up and I bought a vintage dress at a shop and said, “Whenever I wear it I will think of you.”
I was telling her about my new book a bit, about a small breakthrough moment I’d had the other morning, when I finally figured out what one of my main characters did — precisely — for a living. Knowing this one specific detail was opening up so much for me.
On tour, at events, I’d been talking so much about my last novel, All This Could Be Yours, about the process that went into it. How I heard one character talking to me, and I just wrote down everything she told me, how she introduced me to the other characters, her mother, her father, her brother, her sister-in-law, both the spoken and unspoken tension with all of them, just in a few quick paragraphs. She showed me the landscape of the whole book, the clearest of stakes, and I could write from there. It had been helpful to be reminded that all I had to do was pay attention to what my characters had to say.
I thought I would listen to someone else’s characters for a while. I sat down my first morning in Copenhagen — the first day I’d had in a week where I didn’t have to get up and go right away — and finished the book I had brought with me, the excellent Joan is Okay, by Weike Wang. I thought about the specificity of the life of Wang’s protagonist, a doctor, for a while. How felt and known her job was, for example, and what her job meant to her.
Why didn’t I know exactly what my own character’s job was yet? I thought I had known it, but in fact I only knew it quite generally. I sat down and wrote for a while, listening to my character. And finally, in this quiet voice, I heard her at a dinner party explaining to the person next to her what it was she actually did. The short version, the easy version, the story we tell people when we don’t necessarily want to go into great detail, but when we respect the person enough to tell them the truth and leave the door open for them to ask questions if they want. It gave me a new place to write to, and I was grateful.
Have you listened to your characters today?
People have sex in this park at night, I was told
In other news: five weeks till #1000wordsofsummer starts, and I hope you’re getting excited. One of my favorite things about it is that people at all different levels and access points can do it. You can do it if you want to write in your journal every day to get in the habit of writing and communicating your ideas regularly. You can write a short story (or two) by writing every day for two weeks. You can start a novel. You can finish the novel you’ve been working on all this time. You could write the first draft of a new poem every day. You could work on your dissertation, your screenplay, your book proposal. A thousand words doesn’t translate across every form, but the thing you need to know is it amounts to a good day’s work.
I think it makes things a little easier to have a project in mind, some kind of framework at least, and I would recommend thinking ahead about what it is that you want to work on and do a little strategizing about it. But also you could not know what the fuck you are going to write every single day and still get it done anyway, and feel a sense of pride because you did the thing you set out to do that day.
Look, this project is for the nerds. It’s hard! But it’s so rewarding. At my recent event in Hamburg I met a young woman named Zoë Perry who had participated in the past and I was so happy to meet her, I can’t even tell you. She sent me this nice note about what she got out of #1000wordsofsummer which she said I could share a bit of:
“It helped me to re-access the joy I used to take in creativity and the writing process, before I let the doubts about quality or talent stop me from writing anything at all. It also made my life so richer in so many other ways – I read differently, I observe more and listen better, I pay more attention to what I want to say, what draws me in. Maybe one day you’ll have my novel in your mailbox, too, maybe not (that goal still seems very far away at the moment). Right now, I’m just happy that I’ve started to take this side of me serious again and I’m curious about where writing again will lead me.”
The joy in my heart when I read that! Good luck, Zoë!
I really encourage you all to participate for our fifth anniversary event, starting June 4. Together, we’re gonna write all the way through to the end.
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 New Orleans Family Justice Center.
I can't believe #1000wordsofsummer is only five weeks away! I have my project ready. So looking forward.
I’m excited about this year’s #1000wordsofsummer challenge. This will be my 3rd year and from experience I know it’s important to prepare. I’ve already been thinking about how I did it last year and the satisfaction I felt every day rising early and creating. The flow of ideas and words had glorious momentum. Thank you Jami. You are a gift to each and all of us.