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The alchemy of creative attention
What gets said and what does not
I wrote a 1200-word post on Saturday and then decided this morning that I wasn’t feeling it. This is not the first time this has happened. It’s not that I no longer believe in the truth of what I wrote on Saturday. There’s every possibility that post will show up later. Just not today.
When I took a writing workshop with Elizabeth Strout, she urged us to take the things we were experiencing in our lives right now and put them in our fiction. This was how writing was supposed to work. An alchemy of your own emotions and concerns and anxieties transformed into something on the page. Sometimes when I get lost in a story or a novel, I come back to that. What part of what I’m going through right now can I give to this character? It’s easier than you’d think to cram your own drama into someone else.
This practice makes the writing more immediate—we’re probably better at describing what we’re experiencing that day than we are at recalling how we felt in 1985. And let’s face it—as complicated and unique as we might believe ourselves to be, we’re all experiencing the same basic things. Over and over and over again.
It’s therapeutic, too, though I guess we’re not supposed to think about this as writers. I’m currently reading Melissa Febos’ book on writing, Body Work. She’s a big proponent of writing as therapeutic. She says, “There is no pain in my life that has not been given value by the alchemy of creative attention.”
I said to my therapist one day, my hands thrown up in the air in frustration, “But what do I do with all of this?” and by all of this, I meant the pain and the trauma and the grief and the fucking unfairness of it all. “Create some meaning,” she said. Such an unsatisfactory answer in the moment. Transform it through the alchemy of creative attention.
Strangely, I find Elizabeth Strout’s advice harder to follow in nonfiction than in fiction. Fiction provides a screen I can hide behind. If I write all my ugliest thoughts into a fictional character’s head, the reader won’t assume those are my thoughts, even though the truth is, all the thoughts in those fictional characters’ heads are, in fact, my thoughts. That’s how it works.
But to perform that alchemy of creative attention and call it nonfiction—that’s terrifying. There’s nothing to hide behind. Not even, sometimes, the wisdom of hindsight and reflection. There’s just the raw chaos and ugliness inside my head recorded on the page.
One piece of advice you often hear as a writer is to write into your fear. Write toward the scary places, which is so much easier said than done.
There’s a lot to learn from the things people don’t write about. The gaps and the unsaid. I think of this newsletter sometimes this way. What are the things I’m not saying? What is the great unspoken at the center of every post? You can read this newsletter and maybe assume you know something about the way my mind works. You might assume you know something about what it would be like to sit next to me at a dinner party.
But, really, you have no idea. I’d be that mostly silent person sitting next to you. Often prickly and impenetrable. I am a difficult person to get to know. I don’t let my guard down easily. I feel so much more comfortable behind the control of sentences that can be carefully arranged than I do with the chaos of conversation.
Even now, I think I’ve probably said too much. I contemplate ditching this second attempt and starting again. I imagine something more sanitized and more cohesive. Something that makes more sense and has a snappy ending. A useful takeaway. But maybe not today.
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