Writing Obsessions

Janet Grant

Janet Kobobel Grant

What stimulates you to write a story or to compose a manuscript about a certain topic?

Writing Hints

I find it instructive to listen to interviews with highly successful authors. They often are asked–and love to talk about–their writing process. Usually they’ve worked their way through to some helpful insights that all of us can borrow. Thus saving ourselves the pain of learning it through personal experience.

Or the author might have boiled down to its finest essence–like a rosemary sauce for lamb–a way the writer thinks about approaching the next manuscript.

Write What Obsesses You

Some time ago I watched an interview with novelist Meg Wolitzer on The PBS News Hour. As she talked, I grabbed a piece of paper and noted a couple of sentences that held the essence of how to think about what you write.

We’re told to write what we know, but I say, ‘Write what obsesses you.'”

Writers are instructed to steer clear of, say, writing a novel about a group of explorers to Antarctica in the 1800s, if you’re a stay-at-home mom who has lived in Florida all her life. The research necessary to authentically portray the setting, the challenges, and the interior lives of those men makes for a steep climb for any writer. But all the more so for someone newer to the craft.

On the Other Hand…

Ms. Worlitzer’s point is that, if you find yourself obsessively thinking about a topic and how you want to explore it–whether in fiction or nonfiction–you might just be the right person to tackle the concept, bringing to bear everything you know of life.

Here’s an insight from Ms. Worlitzer on why it’s okay to tackle something audacious:

I write not to provide answers–my novels don’t answer questions–but to look at the question from different angles.”

Each of our lives is informed by our experiences of the world that we’ve spent years collecting. If we start out our next writing project determined to showcase that knowledge–and thus lead readers to the answer you’ve already selected for them–you haven’t opened up the world to readers but instead have led them to the corner you reside in, with their faces to the wall.

How Adults Learn

Many years ago, when I received instruction on how to write curriculum, I was told, “Adults learn best when you don’t give them obvious answers–or even pre-selected answers. But if you ask them questions that let them bring their life experience to this new topic, they’ll teach themselves by thinking about the answers.”

Books should not give obvious answers but instead invite the reader to use all he or she has learned about life to consider how he or she sees answers to the questions you pose.

An Enriched Experience

Approaching your writing this way is much harder than presenting a pre-determined answer to life’s conundrums. That means you put your novel’s characters in a seemingly untenable situation, and then you and the reader watch how different personalities, temperaments, and personal histories come to bear on that circumstance.

For your nonfiction book, it means asking the question(s) you’ve been toiling over and–like any good discourse–present some of your noodling. Then give the reader space to noodle with you.

That’s what writing obsessions is all about.

Have you ever written to ask questions rather than provide answers? What did you like about that process? What did you dislike?


Don’t write what you know but what you obsess about. Click to tweet.

Want to add depth to your writing? Then don’t write to provide answers but to pose questions. Click to tweet.

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