The What.

Last night, my wife and I were talking about writing. Given that I am a writer, you may think this kind of thing happens pretty regularly.

You would be wrong. And so was I, in at least one way.

The conversation began as a discussion of What Writers Talk About. For her, in most cases, the stuff we say to one another isn’t all that interesting; as a reader, she wants to know the What–the subject of our work–and all we seem to talk about is the How: the process, the edits, the self-loathing and general despair. As a result, we then turned toward the Why: why don’t we talk more about what we’re actually writing?

If you can believe it (as you should, from reading this blog), my response was: fear. A fear that my idea will be found wanting, or that the listener won’t understand the concept, or that my explanation will outshine the work itself: that someone will find out that I’m not really a writer at all. Instead of telling, I keep it inside, thinking I’m the only one who can understand, until everything is perfect and ready to be shared.

But it’s funny: as soon as I started talking to a non-writer about the What, I wanted to keep talking. I confessed that I haven’t touched my novel since January, because I’m scared of the hard parts (file under: Crying While Writing). I told her that the ideas are there, ready to be written, but putting my fingers to the keys brings everything back so clearly that hiding seems so much better of an idea. I mentioned the raw-beyond-raw short story that’s been slowly growing momentum since last summer, and not in terms of abstract ideas. I told her the plot. The What. I suddenly wanted to read it to her; it was the craziest thing. In telling her the What, I had given her advance access to the fledgling world I was creating. It made me want to take her even further down into it.

Why on earth had I waited? Did I think she was going to knock around inside the new world like a proverbial bull? That she would peek behind the scenes, tell me my seams were showing? Sharing even this greenest part of my writing got me excited to write again. Rapture replaced fear, and I read her the opening scene. My brain buzzed the rest of the night with new ideas spawned from our conversation and the simple act of reading words aloud.

I realized then that, while I sometimes told myself that I didn’t share my stuff with non-writers because they wouldn’t understand or I feared they would take it personally, the real reason was that I didn’t think it was worth sharing–that it needed to get to some enlightened, pristine level before anyone who didn’t fully understand the process could read it. I’ve squandered years on this kind of doubt, all while an incredible source of encouragement and feedback sat two feet from me on the couch, wanting to be let in.

We need readers; I know that writers always say that. But we don’t need them just to read. We need them to listen, even in the earliest stages. If you have a reader in your life who you’ve been afraid to let into the deeper levels of your writing life, just do it. Today. No matter how scary it seems. Tell them everything.

See what happens.

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5 thoughts on “The What.

  1. I found myself wanting to talk about my book to the charge nurse doing my psychiatric appointment yesterday, but, as usual, she was more interested in my ballet. Ballet is my hobby. Writing is my career. Why are people always more interested in my ballet when I mention it? Perhaps I should just not mention that I do ballet.

    • I guess what I meant is that you should allow those into your writing who would like to be let in. Not everyone gets it, or cares; that’s for sure! I know how hard it is to not be taken seriously as a writer by those around you, so keep plugging! The key is definitely to lead with “I’m a writer,” no matter how silly it may sound at first.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. My third NF book’s proposal will probably go out in a few weeks, since my my new agent really likes it. Before I even showed it to her, I shared it with three first readers whose judgment I trust, one of whom is a published, well-reviewed NF author, one of whom is an insightful, trained fiction writer and one of whom is passionate about the topic, but not a writer at all. Their comments and feedback were all helpful — but at the end of the day, it is only the acquiring editor(s)’ opinion — and offer — that will really matter.

    So I agree with you in one sense, but the end goal doesn’t necessarily get easier or closer as a result of others’ enthusiasm along the way.

    • Well, that’s assuming that everyone’s “end goal” is publishing. Talking to your friends and readers, for me, isn’t about testing the waters to see if they’d buy the book. It’s about making deeper connections with the people in your life and trusting that they will hold your deepest secrets and passions as carefully as you do. It’s a giant trust fall.

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