Janet Kobobel Grant
What stimulates you to write a story or to compose a manuscript about a certain topic?
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.
Well, gosh. My whole bloody life has become a series of questions.
* Why do I have pancreatic cancer? Why, in addition, do I have non-H lymphoma? hy does it hurt so much, and why do I have to push my dear wife to build a life that will before long not include me? This stuff sucks…so, WHY?
* How do I write about this without being either pathetic or bathetic? Because, the thing is, neither pathos nor bathos apply. I’m happy, and my dreams are alive, more vividly than ever, because each step toward a goal that I may never reach is all the more meaningful; the hesitancy, the tenuousness, they’re measures of preciousness. But how do you express that in a world that values accomplishment far more than it does process?
* Where can I say this? I’m way too beat-up to mount an effective indie campaign, and from what I’ve seen, TradPub is a lot more comfortable with a kind-of-tragic I’m-broken-but-brokenness-is-beautiful narrative. I may be up to my neck in alligators, but I’m still OK. Dancing on the fraying wire…well, it’s still dancing.
* And the ultimate question…why bother? I’ve been vouchsafed a joyous secret, that the moment REALLY IS all, but the only people who are really going to get it are those who already know it…and for almost everyone else it’s a kind of transcendental gas, a New-Age Zen pseudo-comfort that ignores the reality of a Christ who could be fully there for a Last Supper…knowing that the agent of His torture sat a few feet away. But ‘knowing’ and at the same time ‘being there’ are the essence of sacrifice, salvation, and the empathy that only God-become-man could have.
* And the thing is, this stuff colours everything. I can’t write for someone to whom a gracious home and 5-and-10-year-plans are important, because I personally don’t give a rat’s a**. And I was once them.
* The meaning is in the moment, and Heaven is glimpsed in the flash of the kingfisher’s wings above the still water that reflects a perfect sky.
* Pain, as Renoir said, passes. Beauty remains.
I could’ve saved a lot of words by just saying:
“Don’t let your living passion become your writing poison.”
Mary R. P. Schutter
Andrew, as long as there is breath in your body, keep giving us the wisdom and word gems that flow from you like pure, sweet water and that I personally treasure. You are a gifted author whose writing is filled with so many life truths. Your posts shine like beacons that say, “What are you waiting for? Write what is in your heart. And do it now!” Every one of your posts reminds us there is no room or time for complacency because someone out there needs to read what we are compelled to write. Thanks, Andrew.
Mary, thank YOU, from the bottom of my heart.
Janet Ann Collins
This, in itself, is beautiful writing and you touch all of our lives by what you share here.
Jan, you’ve brought light to a day that has spiralled into really new depths of pain. Thank you so much!
I always look forward to your responses. They are filled with hard-won wisdom and strength. Continuing to pray for you. I love that quote by Renoir. Beautiful artist, beautiful words.
Crystal, I’m so grateful for this. Thank you…and I’m delighted that we share a love for Renoir!
Andrew, I always appreciate your perspective and the wisdom you share. Thank you for giving of your energy to share here. You bless those of us who call this community “family.”
Jeanne, thank you! This community is truly my family, and I am so grateful to everyone here, and to Janet and the Books and Such team for making it possible. I’d have been lost without all of you.
* This blessed place, so infused by the Lord’s Love and Grace, is my refuge, my hope, my lifeline.
WOW. Andrew this has so much to it, not only meaning, but the beats and pattern of how you write.Would make an awesome rap or spoken word. So powerful. I love the Renoir quote, but also love the use of your words. Andrew you have such an expansive vocabulary and depth from which to paint visuals seen in the mind and felt in the heart. Thank you.
Betsy, gosh…I am so humbled and honoured by what you’ve said, and you’ve made my heart sing, a nightingale in the storm.
I just retired from my career in healthcare quality and risk management. But I carried with me the passion for “working the problem;” that is, not jumping to the first solution that comes to mind. Working the problem teases out what works from what doesn’t work. It explores both the expected and unexpected consequences of a solution. It evaluates a small trial before taking the big leap.
* But working the problem is balanced by “inquiring of the Lord.” This Old Testament phrase describes bringing it to God and asking “What should I do, Lord?”
* I write about our relationship with God. I tell stories and I ask questions. I show how to work the problem and how to listen to God. But I can’t do either for my readers. I can only provide tools to help them do it themselves.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I have a ms. set in Ancient Nineveh that was like this for me. I mean, when was the last time you had a casual conversation about irrigation machines in Ancient Assyria? They used giant screws to pull the water out of the Tigris river, in case you were wondering. But after a taste of the culture from an Ancient Near Easter History class, I was hooked. I spent years writing and researching and writing and researching again. One of my absolute favorite topics and Jonah has become one of my favorite books of the Bible. There is so much packed in there it is mindboggling!
I am caught between being a soldier in the King’s army…and getting a story out that I believe He’s placed on my heart, and has something important to say to & for others.
Or…write a story about a time & place I love (and also feel He’s blessed me with) because it personally brings me joy and encouragement. So…do I go with something others may need to hear–or something I need to write?
But… I may have gotten my answer through Andrew and Shirlee. Praise God for you both.
Based on what you’ve written, Janet, I assume you are referring to our motive for writing the story. Are we trying to bring the world to our own pre-determined answer, or ask/explore a question that may result in an answer that guides the reader to consider it for themselves?
For me, writing is a process of walking with God, asking questions I didn’t know I had, and Him working through the answers with my characters in a way that made me consider my own life in a whole new way.
Only God knew when I wrote the first word of my current manuscript that, like my character, I would face the death of a dear grandparent in such a way as to shake my entire world. I still almost laugh when I think about how my story question started out as “Can you really trust and love God, even if He takes everything and everyone from you?” God knew what I would be facing, that the question would become more than a surface explanation.
And like a good story, He didn’t leave me with only hanging questions, He pointed me to an answer that made me consider Him in a whole new light.
Those are the kind of stories that end up having a true depth to them. The ones that don’t give you an answer but point you to THE Answer, our Creator and Saviour. Seeing your characters wrestle with the same questions and struggles and find hope… those are the stories that leave a mark on our soul–as an author and a reader.
I was taught to define my story question at or near the beginning of my rough draft. I’ve discovered that the answers the characters discover often surprise me. I so loved this post, Janet. You had me nodding my head a lot, and thinking about how it applies to my current project.
I love this idea. Because we don’t always know the answers, and sometimes it seems like there are no answers. It’s just finding the best path for me. Being left to determine that path often leaves me a little unsettled … and forever changed.
Hey Janet, I especially like your advice on how people learn. Thank you!
In thinking about writing and obsession and God’s Grace in the dark places, I can say this:
The last and best mission I have is to bring hope to those around me, hoarding none for myself. In passing on love, the channel is constantly washed clean, but is only thus wholly transfigured into that Grace it carries.
And speaking of Grace, I’ve mentioned that my service dogs, Sylvia and Ladron, have done CPR on me several times, keeping me alive. If anyone wants to see just how that looks, the link below has a video clip…and yes, having an 80-lb dog jumping up and down on one’s chest does result in sore ribs.
Sometimes you kinda know something but can’t quite figure out how to express it. Your blog just did. I like books best that make me think, consider an issue from a different angle. And those are the books I remember the longest. When I write, I don’t want to lead my readers my corner with “their face to the wall” because I don’t enjoy having that done to me. This blog has many really great take-aways. Thank you!
I love this Janet. It really makes me think about how to approach the things I write about. I believe in what Meg Worlitzer instructs writers to do. I mean, yes, I can write what I know and draw a reader in, and give them a slice of the world I live in, AND, I believe with all my heart I can write with fresh perspective and unique insights on things I have not experienced, IF, I am obsessed by the subject matter. Obsession is even more important than passion, or at least just as important. Passion can cause you to write predominantly a romanticized view or lopsided view of a subject. But with obsession a person wants to learn everything about something, and experience it in as many ways as possible. Obsession can certainly cause someone who has no or limited knowledge to gain more and be able to pass that experience on in writing as if actually there. Then again, in the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, obsession can also be not normal, an unhealthy , and not know when to stop. This is where hopefully passion steps in and says enough and then goes on to another story, or subject to write on.
On giving the answer or not it depends on the intent and need. For my patients it was pretty cut and dry–do this and live, do this and get worse or die. Not that plainspoken, but we had to make things clear. There have been patients who were not given clear answers and misinterpreted instructions and did suffer. Thankfully, none of mine. I enjoyed patient education, and making difficult concepts or directions easy to understand.
But then Jesus, He almost exclusively used parables so people could think for themselves and find out the truths He was speaking of.
For me it depends on the subject matter or what’s on the menu for that meal.
Sometimes it’s just me with my own recipe of noodle soup. Sometimes it’s a pot where everyone tosses in their own noodles, which by the way can make for a very tasty meal.
In thinking about the way adults learn, I found that was difficult for me. I am a “black is black, white is white,” kind of person, but the older I get, the more I see areas of grey–and that’s hard to accept. On the other hand, I don’t like being force-fed answers, either.
*As far as what stimulates me to write an article, sometimes a scene comes into my mind and I can’t get it out of my head. That is the case for a story I have now. It may never get published, but it may be only for me anyway. It’s a Western and the main characters are coming from two opposing mindsets. Writing the story means research and prayer, because the faith of one of the characters is the underlying reason the character does what he does. I have an idea my faith will have to grow as I write the story, to best express it.