Weekend Edition – Finding the Place Where Your Writing Gets Interesting

Using Curiosity & Contradiction to Fuel Your Writing:

Follow your curiosity where it leads, to the edges of the reality you know, and beyond.

Follow your curiosity where it leads, to the edges of the reality you know, and beyond.

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? 

The first response that made me sit up and say, “Hey! That’s interesting.” was from Alison Murphy (Twitter Profile – “Writer, Program Director for . Fights like a girl.”):

grub chat 151123a

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.):

grub chat 151123b

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.

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Shareworthy:

book thirstyKristin 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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dan blank giveawayIn other shareable news, Dan Blank of We Grow Media is hosting a fabulous giveaway. The Creative Success Giveaway features six books that promise to inspire and support you in your creative journey:

  • 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!

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly and otherwise inspiring/informative/entertaining posts from this week:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

pin curiosity disney

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!
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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 Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Forest Path Photo Credit: Casey Hugelfink via Compfight cc

71 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Finding the Place Where Your Writing Gets Interesting

  1. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Finding the Place Where Your Writing Gets Interesting | benmacnair

  2. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Finding the Place Where Your Writing Gets Interesting | A Place to be Real

    • That’s quite a compliment. Thank you. I was obviously impressed with the advice of the participants in the Grub Writers tweet chat. Definitely got MY wheels turning! 😉

  3. The only place where my writing gets interesting is in my head. I can any which way I want and tweak them as much as I want to till I’m satisfied. I have to believe in my stories before I can sell them to others.
    I agree with ‘curiosity’. People and life in general are my endless sources of inspiration. Amazing how much one can learn by merely listening observing and absorbing. But I also talk to strangers. They have a lot of interesting things to say.

  4. I will read the books. I quite like the idea of curiosity to form ideas as it applies with Einstein and Newton. I myself once went to a fair when I was very small and was curious to try a particular ice cream and later I came to know that it was a particularly famous and rare flavour. My friends were quite surprised that I got the flavour I later wrote a story somehow related to this incident.

    • You bring up a great point, Yashi, about how curiosity is very much a driving force behind many of the scientific achievements in our history, as well as the artistic and literary. Seems like curiosity is a great asset no matter what field you’re in!
      Love the story about the ice cream. Dying to know the flavor now! 😉

  5. Curiosity IS the ticket, Jamie!! I think it’s a very good way to ‘launch’ someone who thinks they are creatively-challenged or can’t pinpoint a passion. I’m passing this concept on to a friend who seems ‘stuck’ at her retirement crossroad.

    • I think curiosity is my new spirit animal. 😉 Love the idea of tuning into curiosity when we are stuck at a crossroad – letting the thing that makes us cock our heads like a dog be the thing that guides us to the next turning in our journey. Awesome!

      • Absolutely!! Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat; it makes life richer in every aspect! And in a profoundly ‘light-bulb-aha” insight, I have found that nurturing my curiosity leads to a growing tolerance for all that I don’t yet comprehend.

      • This conversation also reminds me (and I may be repeating myself) of the concept that we’re meant to be doing the thing that we find ourselves doing even when it’s not what pays our bills. Curiosity is a powerful engine that often pulls us off the straight and narrow, in the best of all possible ways. 😉

  6. Thanks. The idea of writing about what you want to understand was a real eye opener for me. I really feel that taking the readers on your journey of discovery makes a much more interesting blog.

    • I agree that writing about what you want to understand is a very relevant idea for bloggers. That approach feels more like a friendly collaboration between writer/blogger and reader. I like that. 🙂

      • And may I also add that writing about what you want to understand is one of the best ways to master a topic you’re unfamiliar with. 🙂

        I just started a (highly non-fictional) blog that explores topics about a concept I’m not familiar with. It’s forced me to focus my learning and I do believe my understanding of the subject matter is improving!

        I agree with you about blogs being relevant as they are potentially excellent exemplifications of just-in-time learning. So yes, write for curiosity’s sake!

    • That’s very, very true, Andrew. To be able to teach a thing means that you have – as we’ve discussed about stories – broken it down, taken it apart, seen how it works, and successfully put it back together. You, quite literally, know this thing inside and out; and because of that you have a dozen or more ways to explain it to someone else (or yourself, if you’re still learning!)
      Thanks, as always, for the added perspective.

    • We all have so much to learn from each other … especially when we ask questions and then explore them together without having to have the “right” answer. I’m flattered to be thought of as a mentor, though I tend to think of myself more as the quiet, awkward kid at the back of the class who every once in a while asks a good question. 😉

      Thanks for being here. Happy blogging AND writing!

    • Capturing those moments is so important – and then exploring what they mean to you, why you remembered them, how you remembered them and how your memory is different from someone else’s. There are so many ways a story can grow from there – from that one, small moment. Love that!

      • Yes ! My moments in life are what make me who I am today and without it, I could of never of had thought of anything to write about . No one understands why I write all the time ,but, at least its making me happy 🙂

      • No one needs to understand your “why.” You just do what you do. That’s what matters. 🙂

    • Hello, Amanda.
      I hadn’t seen that article – thanks for sharing. I will have to check out that book, too. Looks really interesting.

      Thanks for the kind words. Enjoyed visiting your blog this morning and have subscribed so I can look forward to more. 😉

      • Kind of you to subscribe, thank you! I’ve been reading Live to Write for a while now and find a lot of encouragement there. Thanks to you and the other writers who devote some much time and heart to it.

      • It’s our pleasure. We get so much in return from people like you who take the time to not only read, but also start conversations. We solitary writers need that! 😉

        Hope your freelance adventure continues to go well. Onward & upward!

  7. I use to tell my son that he is able to confirm that he knows a concept if he can teach the lesson learned. This a fantastic, insightful and helpful post. You have managed to harness the concept of writing what you are curious about and writing what keeps you up at night. My thinking is now elevated – thanks! You have helped me corral my thinking (somewhat) about my current writing project. There are so many time I feel as if I really don’t know what I’m doing so I stop writing for days on end, but your article has given me a push towards continuing to write the book.

    • I love when something I’ve shared pushes a fellow writer to continue with his or her work. That’s wonderful to hear. Thank YOU for sharing & good luck with your project!

  8. So true, especially about writing to learn. I learn so much from what I write. Part of the reason I write is to learn more about the thing I have to research, and also to learn more about how I think about something myself.

    • Exactly. I can’t recall who said it or the exact quote, but there’s a line out there about how we write to figure out what we think about things … that we use the process of writing to process our thoughts and the world. That definitely applies to me. In spades.

      TKS for stopping by!

  9. Sometimes when I write, it’s really difficult to get out of my own head to give characters their own voice. Love this post on writing about what makes you curious. The farther outside ourselves we reach, the more depth we are capable of in our writing. Thanks so much for the post!

    • Ooh! That’s an interesting idea – stepping farther outside ourselves via our characters to achieve greater depth in our writing. Love that twist on these ideas.
      Thanks for giving me something more to think about!

  10. Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
    I love the reminder that we should write about things we are curious about rather than things we already know. I try to do that – things I know a bit about but definitely want to know more. It gives me an excuse to immerse myself in another world.

    And as for using curiosity to explore what might be possible – that is so important. Check out the quote by Walt Disney near the end of the post.

    Then there is the suggestion that conflict is good, and to have characters with some contradictions is good – after all – aren’t most people like that? That would probably explain the love-hate relationship I have with one of my most recent heroines Eloise from ‘The Secret Life of Eloise’ (due to be published in 2016). I started by not liking her much, but still feeling a strong sense of fascination that spurred me on to write her story. I ended up by finding a lot of her hidden depths and really liking her. Mostly…

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  15. I totally agree with what you say about curiosity fuelling your writing. I often write about what I want to know or want to understand better. As a reader, I also prefer this position to someone preaching to me or coming across as being some kind of life expert when the reality is that we are all learning as we go. I’ve seen so many people in positions of trust and influence found guilty of terrible crimes such as Rolf Harris, priests etc. I’m quite wary of heroes now.

    • ” … wary of heroes …” Yes, sadly that is good advice.
      When I first wandered into the world of the Internet, I admit that I was quite taken by a number of “digital heroes” and “life experts.” Unfortunately, the early blogging landscape was a gold mine for people with a certain, shall we say, loose approach to ethics. I have found some satisfaction over the years to see that many of these former idols have been exposed and cast aside. Many do continue to thrive, but I am now happily free from listening to their self-important sermons. Life is too short for that. Like you, I prefer to read the stories and thoughts of people who are fellow travelers on the road – people who don’t claim to have all the answers, but who make the journey better just by being there. 🙂

      Thanks for hanging out here! 🙂

  16. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Finding the Place Where Your Writing Gets Interesting | Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine

  17. This is thought-provoking! Pursuing curiosity instead of passion – I was always a curious person but also always followed my passions. Although, I believe they are connected: I develop passions by curiosity and they evolve with it, as well. Making questions ia an hobby in itself. 😀

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