What Place Do You Write From?
Loyalty Bookstores has meant a lot to me and many other authors over the years. Even if you’ve never visited their beautiful shops in person, you might have attended one of their stellar online events over the years. (Longtime readers here might even recall when I hosted an online Thanksgiving marathon reading with Loyalty for single folks stuck at home by themselves during that brutal 2020 holiday season. It was incredible.) Anyway, they need our help and they’re running a fundraiser. You can also just order books through them! (Including mine!) We love Loyalty!
Last night I went to see Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon speak at Baldwin & Co bookstore to honor Jesmyn’s new novel. The event space there is outdoors, and it was drizzling when the evening began but people held up their umbrellas and sat and smiled through it all. Jesmyn and Kiese are our neighbors from Mississippi but they were treated like hometown heroes. Too late to claim a seat among the hundreds there, I stood in the back to see what I could learn.
Jesmyn’s list of accolades is long. (So is Kiese’s!) She is one of the most respected and awarded authors in our lifetime, winning the National Book Award twice. Truly one of our greatest American writers. How do you concentrate when you have that in the foreground of your life?
Jesmyn talked about gathering up all her awards, the little statues, and giving them to her mother, leaving them at her house. A trophy in a china cabinet. In Jesmyn’s own home, she hides her books from her eyesight. Anything so she can avoid her Career while she writes.
I was eager to hear this part because I had been thinking a little bit about ego and the public self lately. When you are in the throes of publishing a book you have to contemplate yourself. How to talk about yourself, how to present yourself to the world. I don’t think it’s good for our souls. But a book is a representation of who you are. You’ve put everything into it after spending so much time with it. You will fight for it. The best thing about talking 1000 Words is that I didn’t just write it, all these other writers did, too. So it all starts to get easier when you’re discussing the work of writers you admire, too.
I think the most rewarding moment from last night was when Jesmyn talked about having a period of time when she was struggling to write in her life. She is someone who has a real writing practice, where she sits down and writes 2-5 hours, five days a week. But there was that moment when she could not. Then a conversation with another National Book Award winner, poet Nikki Finney, changed her path.
Jesmyn was telling Nikki about the challenges she was feeling with her work. Nikki asked her about writing Salvage the Bones, and what place she had written it from. And Jesmyn said she had written it from a place of love. She loved the characters, she loved the story. Nikki suggested she return to her desk and write from that place. And so Jesmyn began to write again. And she continues to carry that idea with her. That she knows where she writes from. Love.
All of this talk was about the intimate moment of writing but also about the long haul of being a writer. Pacing yourself, respecting yourself, creating your boundaries. Determining your resources. Finding your wells within yourself. Knowing that what you’re doing is not just for now but for the rest of your life, if you choose it. The long haul of it all.
I could not get a good shot but you get the idea
Oh, the beautifully bitter long haul of writing a book! I do think some people are born for the long project. I have friends who will rewrite the same book over and over and just take great pleasure in stewing in it. (Lauren writes a first draft, puts it away and never looks at it again, and then starts over on it, working from memory.) Or there are some who choose projects that require deep, time-consuming research. Archives, travel, translations. Anything to stay comfortably stuck in the work.
The way I feel about a long project is that part of me loves having something that is just secret and for me for a good long while, and that it even feels deeply romantic. But eventually I want people to read what I have to say. How long does it need to remain a secret? Who knows. I do think a better question is how do you stay in it, stay steady over the long haul, knowing you’ll be on your own for so long? Jasmine was in town this week and at dinner she reminded me she has a post-it note up in her office that says, “Remember: you like writing.”
I don’t think I’m talking about how we make things feel fresh. That’s another topic. I think maybe I’m talking about that part of the creative ego that needs attention. Positive feedback of any kind can spur your progress. “I can live for two months on a good compliment,” said Mark Twain famously, but listen honey, I’m just trying to make it through another Sunday night.
So what can we do about it? There’s of course sharing your work with others, which we talked a little bit about last week. You can also try to get smaller parts of your book published (depending on what kind of long project you have) in a literary magazine or adapting some of it to be an essay or some kind of non-fiction piece. And there’s doing something like this, writing a newsletter or some other kind of personal post on social media, which is perhaps the fastest route to being public with your work, offering it up to the masses. And finally there’s giving a reading from it, and that can be in person or online or over the telephone if you have someone wanting to listen to you. I believe the public declaration of your words has real meaning.
Phew! We just want a little love.
I tussle with that writer’s ego all the time. Tending to the particular balance of needing quiet and insular thinking, and the need for a little attention or engagement, too. Life is all about just checking your shit, or at least it is for me. Listening to Jesmyn and Kiese last night helped me to check my shit.
And just writing this down has given me a little more strength and impetus to dive back into the art again. Because I have been reminded by a member of the writing community to ask myself the question: What place do you write from? I know how to answer it. So I can return to my desk.
p.s. We’re going to start launch new discussion threads once a week, so get ready. A little experiment to see if we like chit-chatting with each other about different things. (This is for paid subscribers only.) The first thread goes out tomorrow. I’m excited to see what happens!
p.p.s. This week’s donation went to Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.