Using Curiosity & Contradiction to Fuel Your Writing:
This week, I had not one, but two, nuggets of writerly wisdom dropped into my lap. Even more fun, they were delivered in real time by real people via Twitter, of all places.
Just before lunch on Tuesday, the Grub Street Writing Center hit my inbox with an invitation to join a tweet chat happening that afternoon. For the uninitiated, a tweet chat is a coordinated group conversation that takes place on Twitter at a particular time. You can follow and participate in the conversation via the chat’s hashtag. Anyway – long story short – I decided to attend the chat. (I was procrastinating on a deadline, so I thought – why not?)
Side Note: I have found that the easiest way to keep up with the stream of tweets that make up a lively tweet chat is to use TweetChat. This third-party website lets you enter the chat’s hashtag and then provides a streamlined view of the incoming tweets that highlights moderator posts and responses to your tweets. The platform also automatically appends the chat’s hashtag to your own tweets. It’s very helpful.
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The topic of the tweet chat – how to finish your novel or memoir – wasn’t particularly relevant to me (since I’m still a long ways from actually finishing any such projects), but the second question in the chat hooked my interest right away:
Q2: What strategies do novelists and memoirists use to develop their initial ideas?
Aminatta Forna, the woman to whom Alison attributes this idea, is an author with five novels under her belt, so I’m guessing she has put the theory to the test.
I love the idea of writing about what you want to understand (instead of writing what you know) for a couple of reasons. First, it takes away the pressure of having to be an expert about your writing topic. If you’re writing about the thing you want to understand (vs. the thing we already know), you aren’t expected to have all the answers up front. You can learn along the way. Second, the fact that you’re learning along the way means that there’s a world of possibilities laid out in front of you when you start your journey. Writing about a thing you think you know can make you unintentionally close-minded if you fall into the trap of only working with the finite amount of information you’ve already discovered. Writing about something you want to understand, on the other hand, means you’re asking questions instead of just spitting out rote answers; and questions are much more fun than answers.
Which reminds me of a related quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Live, Pray and – more recently – Big Magic. In an interview with Oprah, Berg urged creative people to stop worrying so much about following their passion, and instead follow their curiosity. Curiosity is one of the words that define my personal “manifesto” for living and creating, and it fits perfectly with this idea of writing about things you want to understand. I’ve written about the genius of curiosity before, and here is an excerpt from another post I wrote after hearing the lovely Susan Orlean speak about how curiosity fuels her projects:
What matters to you? Write about that. Follow the lead that keeps you up at night. Build a story around it, or unearth and share the story that already exists. Let yourself be consumed with a burning desire to know, to learn, and to share. Orlean talked about needing a sense of discovery and amazement in her projects. She said that she knew she was on the right trail when each new piece of information made her think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” Her creative fires were stoked by a constant need to share what she’d learned with others, to give her readers that same moment of awe and epiphany.
Indulging your curiosity is not only an excellent strategy for developing initial story and project ideas, it also helps keep you engaged and excited about your work, and it infuses your writing with a sense of excitement that your readers can feel. Curiosity and exploring the unknown leads you on a journey full of the unexpected, epiphanies, and the chance to learn new things about your world, your work, and yourself. That’s a pretty good bang for your buck, if you ask me.
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The second tweet that I loved from this chat was also sent in response to the question about how writers develop initial ideas. This answer came from Sonya Larson (Twitter Profile:Program Director of Grub Street. Writer. Break-dancer? Someday.):
This is brilliant advice. Contradictions and opposing truths are the heart of tension and conflict which are, in turn, at the heart of a strong narrative. Looking for those differences in the world around us – in individuals, cultures, beliefs, actions, etc. – can help us unearth the core of strong story ideas that open up new possibilities.
Larson’s comment also reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years back for my marketing blog about how all the most interesting things happen on the edges:
Out on the edges things get interesting. People try new ideas, combine disparate concepts, and look at life through a different lens. You can see farther and into new places. Experiments fail and succeed. Alliances are forged. Partnerships are brokered. On the edges is where the great mash-ups happen. Peanut butter gets into chocolate and the world is changed forever
Though these two concepts are slightly different, like following your curiosity they both have to do with opening ourselves up to more possibilities. Part of our job as writers is to use our perceptive abilities and imagination to see the different facets of people and situations. One of our super powers is the ability to see things from different angles and viewpoints, to keep an open and flexible mind that allows us to shift the reader’s perspective. We shatter assumptions, bend and expand reality, shape stories so that they redefine how someone sees the world.
This idea of exploring opposing but equally true realities also relates to the tried-and-true writer’s tool of asking the question, “What if?” What if the serial killer is also a philanthropist? What if the charlatan magician is also a real wizard? What if the rigged political race is also a true reflection of the people’s voice? What if your true love is also your nemesis? On the edges where opposites meet, there is friction, and in that friction, great stories are born … if you’re willing to ask the questions and explore the unknown with open eyes.
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s second novel, The Art of Floating, was the book that drew me back into a long dormant love affair with reading for pleasure. The book lust that story inspired in me kept me reading late into the night like a kid with a flashlight under the covers. I loved it.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting O’Keeffe at a local author fair. Though I was a little star struck and may have babbled a bit, we had a lovely chat – more about kids than books – and I picked up a copy of her first novel, Thirsty.
An excerpt from the book description:
It is 1883, and all of Klara Bozic’s girlish dreams have come crashing down as she arrives in Thirsty, a gritty steel town carved into the slopes above the Monongahela River just outside of Pittsburgh. She has made a heartbreaking discovery. Her new husband, Drago, is as abusive as the father she left behind in Croatia.
In Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Klara’s life unfolds over forty years as she struggles to find her place in a new country where her survival depends on the friends who nurture her: gutsy, funny Katherine Zupanovic, who isn’t afraid of Drago’s fist; BenJo, the only black man in Thirsty to have his own shop; and strangely enough, Old Man Rupert, the town drunk.
This isn’t the kind of story I’d usually be drawn to. I tend to prefer novels with a little more fantasy and magic, and I don’t often spontaneously choose historical narratives. Still, based on how much I loved The Art of Floating, I was more than willing to give O’Keeffe’s other novel a try. I was not disappointed.
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t a book that I loved from page one. It was a book that crept up on me, slow and stealthy, so that by the time I had reached the last third of the story, I was willing to abandon all the other obligations of my afternoon in order to curl up on the couch and finish the story. (Which is, by the way, exactly what I did.)
O’Keeffe handles the passage of time with great skill and subtlety. For a relatively short book, she covers a long period of time – about forty years – but it never feels tedious. Though it took me a little bit to get used to the idea of skipping years between chapters, once I found the rhythm, it seemed a natural way to tell Klara’s tale. As a writer, I was impressed by O’Keeffe’s ability to select the moments that would best tell the story over the course of a lifetime. The way the story takes us from one important moment to the next, skipping all the unimportant stuff, feels very authentic in that it mirrors the way we recall memories of our own.
Though the story is on the one hand very gritty and even, in places, hard to read because of the subject matter – abuse, death, war, grief, regret – it had for me the feel of a fairytale. Despite the stark realism of Klara’s life in the dirty and desolate mill town, there is always a thread of faith, strength, and hope that runs through the story. There are moments of light in the darkness that keep Klara, and the reader, pushing ahead, persevering to reach a hopefully happy ending. Some of these moments have a flavor of magical realism about them, like the flock of angelic butterflies that visits the town, but most of them are magic of a different kind – the magic of love, friendship, redemption, and joy.
Thirsty is a hard, but beautiful tale that shines a light on the best and worst of the human spirit. O’Keeffe’s poetic language weaves a spell that draws us slowly into the grip of the story so that, by the time we reach the end, we feel as if we have traveled the years with her characters and come away better people for having taken the journey.
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- The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
- Rising Strong by Brené Brown
- Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown
- The Steal Like an Artist Journal by Austin Kleon
Each of these books is on my To Read List, and if you’ve spent any time here on the Weekend Edition, you already know that I love Dan’s work helping authors connect with readers. (His blog posts are often included in my weekly wrap-up of writerly blog posts.)
You can enter the giveaway here until 7PM EST on December 4th. Prizes will be awarded on December 7th. Good luck!
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly and otherwise inspiring/informative/entertaining posts from this week:
- The incurable creative virus by @pjrvs
- 7 ways to nurture creativity via @TheNextWeb
- On Pandering by @clairevaye via @Tin_House
- Where’s Your Magic? by @bernadettejiwa
- The Power of Purpose by @RobbinPhillips
- 18 Signs You Were Destined to be a Writer by @MarianSchembari
- 7 Productivity Tools to Help You Manage Your Freelance Writing Time by @MerylWilliams
- Short Story Vending Machine Solves All On-The-Go Fiction Problems by Claire Fallon
- How to Level Up Your Writing Habit by Emily Wenstrom
Finally, a quote for the week:
Here’s to heeding your curiosity and daring to step into the places where different truths clash to create new realities. Happy writing! Happy reading!
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Forest Path Photo Credit: Casey Hugelfink via Compfight cc