I wanted to share two quotes I came across recently in my reading. The first is from a conversation with Heather Christle that the novelist Leigh Stein did for her newsletter (which, if you aren’t reading, you might want to pick up). Christle is best known as a poet, but her most recent work, The Crying Book, is a personal essay grounded in a cultural investigation into what crying means to us. Stein asked her what it was like to take on a completely different genre. “I like to not know what I'm doing when I begin,” she responded. “I'm suspicious of the concept of mastery.”
“My favorite state to be in is one of learning, and in the case of this book I was learning both subject and form, which meant that despite the despair I often experienced in my mental health, I also experienced frequent delight at my brain putting new structures together.”
Christle then offers encouragement for other writers who want to attempt working in a new format: “It's probably good to know that whatever you've learned from the genre you already know will help you in your new one as well, and to treat new technical problems as fascinating, rather than overwhelming.”
“Fascinating, rather than overwhelming” is such a wonderful way to think of the challenges of switching from poetry to prose, or vice versa—really, it’s a wonderful way to think of all the challenges you face when you’re tackling any new work. Are you having trouble figuring out a character’s motivations? Is there a section of your memoir you’ve resisted writing, because it brings up painful memories? These are both opportunities for you to do some deep emotional exploration. Are you working on a nonfiction piece, and can’t find the throughline that will turn all the information you found in your research into a story? Get ready to sit with that material, live with it, and come to a better understanding of it.
These challenges won’t come easy, and you might not get them right the first time, or even the first few times. As I wrote earlier this week, though, when you “mess up,” it’s because you were taking a risk. And that risk ultimately brings great rewards.
The other message I want to share is from my friend Maria Dahvana Headley, who shared some thoughts on her career trajectory in a Twitter thread Thursday:
“When I was a baby writer, I’d look at the writers who were doing the work I wished I was doing and feel like the world wouldn’t let me do it. Then, one day, I just started writing what I really wanted to write. This was a good move, turns out.”
Maria’s being modest: It’s been a great move for her, bringing success that straddles both the YA and literary fiction markets. In a way, though, her commercial success isn’t the point—the point was to prove that her wildest ideas were, in fact, viable stories. “And once you’ve written the big crazy thing,” she adds, “you get better at it.”
But, she warns, “the only way great writing hits the page is if you sit your ass down and write. [The] only way you get an enviable career is by doing the weird work of learning what your brain can make.” A message that’s very much in this newsletter’s wheelhouse!
So, whether you’ve hit the halfway point on your National Novel Writing Month project or you’re immersed in a wild adventure all your own with no fixed timetable, I hope you find some time this weekend to learn more about your story. (And remember, if you can’t work in some time at the computer, or with your notebook, working over pieces of the story in your head totally counts!)