When You Are Sent Ideas, You Must Receive Them
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Greetings from New Orleans where the last bit of muggy December heat is wavering, and all my plants are bursting with that their final moments of bright green health. Yesterday I walked for miles in the sunshine with a smile on my face. In a few days we’ll be back to sweater weather. I don’t mind sweater weather, but on the other hand, I would be happy to stroll in the sunshine forever.
In fact I walked around all morning receiving ideas from the city. It was incredible. We can talk about the nuts and bolts of writing all day long and those things are important and helpful to consider and inspiring in their own way, but my money is on the magical inspirational stuff providing the real pleasure of writing. Even though I have so much other work to do on my works-in-progress, for whatever reason, my brain was amenable to receive new inspiration, and this city, for all its ups and downs, those crumbling streets, they give you inspiration. If you want it. If you are ready for it.
What I got were first sentences, which I realized were first sentences of chapters, which quickly played out like whole stories in front of me. I had a similar experience when I was working on my sixth book, All Grown Up. For that book, I just sat down one morning and made a list of concerns of a character and then almost immediately, each one felt like a chapter. I wrote 90 pages of it in 3 weeks. It all felt very precise to me.
This next time around, I am excited by the idea of doing something that might feel a little more sloppy or sexy or lazy or languid — at least at first glance. Just a very collapsed feeling, like when you walk into a familiar house and sprawl out on an old couch. Maybe it was the house you used to drink beer in when you were in high school. A couch in a basement. And some people you used to know are there. And you haven’t been there in a long time, and it’s a little more rundown but then again, so are you. Still everything mostly looks the same and smells the same, and it just feels so incredible to be in this place because it’s history and youth and wildness, and you don’t check your phone the entire time, and then you even lose track of time, and there’s weird flirtations and someone disappears from the party a while and comes back really high, maybe, and there’s just a row rumble of laughter and a bittersweet, discontent feeling, but still, everyone is happy to be there, together, in this house, in this room, in this story, and it all makes sense by the end.
I want to make a book that feels like that.
I was talking to a friend this weekend about something she was interested in writing, a rather urgent story about a negative workplace experience she had had. She’s a great writer, but doesn’t do a lot of personal, first-person stuff, and was just sort of poking at the idea of doing this, if it should be a longer form piece, for example, or a quick hit essay. I said, “I would start writing it and see what sort of form it wants to take.”
I am a fan of getting it all down first and then carving out a destiny for the piece when you’re done with that first draft, especially if you’ve never written in a particular style before. We all have to learn how to write something for the first time. We do not emerge into this world fully skilled at writing a sharp op-ed or a whimsical style-section piece. (Or even some rambling Sunday morning newsletter.)
And sometimes I do think the words will simply show you the way themselves. Maybe you only have 1500 words on a topic after all, when you thought surely you had 10,000. Maybe you thought you had five tight paragraphs in you, but then it turned out you had a willingness and a need to write the entire backstory leading up to a moment, and now maybe you’re writing a whole damn essay collection? Who even knows what could happen when you sit down and let the words guide the way.
My friend and I bantered back and forth about the story’s relevance, too. About turning down the “no one is going to care about this topic” voice. Good writing is good writing, and a good story is a good story. People want to read something well-written, people want to hear a juicy or interesting or important story, no matter the subject.
Also — I have heard other writers say this, most recently my friend Ladee Hubbard at an event we did together, so I don’t want to take credit for it — this is perhaps the most inspiring advice of all: if you care about something, chances are at least one other person in this world is going to care, too. Who knows who that person is? But write it for them.
Don’t walk away from a good idea. That’s what I want to leave you with today. Don’t ever talk yourself out of writing something because you don’t know how it fits in the world yet. If it feels good or interesting, you must embrace it, and then surely you must try to write it.
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 support a local high school holiday party here in New Orleans.
Thank you for this uplifting piece- you’ve given my Sunday morning toasted bagel a good schmeer! Having just reviewed the copy edits to my forthcoming book (a venture of 7 years and counting), I too am cautiously optimistic that there are lots of “someones” who will also care.
Your words hit just right for me today. My book coach gave me a good talking-to yesterday about the lack of P on my WIP. This rainy day in New Orleans seems to be reinforcing the message too—quit ruminating about why anyone else will care and just write the damn thing. Thanks as always.