It’s a topic I come back to many times, because it represents a core truth for me.
I can write only what feeds me, what gives me energy.
I watched many eager writers through a strenuous, two-year MFA program, and I was reminded again and again that one of the most important doors our students could learn to open was the one to their own best writing energy.
Sometimes what waits to be discovered is form, the particular form that speaks to each writer. Not that any of us should be limited to one genre if our interest reaches wider, but there is usually a right place to start, novel or picture book or easy reader, nonfiction or verse.
Often what waits to be discovered, too, is a particular topic. Many first novels are autobiographical because we all have issues rising out of childhood aching for resolution. And what better way to resolve them than to create a person more capable of sorting them out than we ever were?
But after that start, after the first manuscript or two or three that mines the big stuff, how do we keep going? For my part, I have learned to watch for anything that sizzles. I don’t pick up an idea because it’s cute. (That goes without saying. Anyone who has read my work knows I have little interest in or skill for “cute.”) I don’t take on a topic merely because I think it’s something I can sell. I don’t even try out an idea because I believe it is important.
I immerse myself in a new project because it comes knocking on my brain with a certain electricity attached.
I am currently in a period of waiting for editorial notes on my latest novel. While I wait I keep my hands—and my eyes—off the novel I’ve just sold so as to be able to approach it fresh when those notes come. And so as not to go off in directions the editor won’t be expecting.
But I’m not just waiting. I am slipping every day deeper and deeper into a pool of ideas. Trying out my next project.
Some of the ideas I’ve tried out have let me know that they aren’t ready. One, an early reader I started and abandoned years ago, came tumbling out of my computer and clicked this time.
But then I was back to the pool, searching for electricity.
One thing I found floating around was a young-adult novel I worked on a few years ago. I had nearly 200 pages of a first draft and months and months of meticulous research when I ran out of energy and put it aside.
Very firmly aside. When my agent, who had read those first pages, wondered why I didn’t return to it I had a half-a-dozen very solid reasons.
Recently, though, I found myself reading a YA novel in verse with an electric current running down my spine. “What if?” I said to myself for the first time. “What if I tackled that abandoned novel again in verse? Would that make a difference? Would working in small pieces and different voices give the story more energy? Would the different approach demanded by verse enable me to drop out some of the detail that overwhelmed me in my first draft?
And suddenly, character after character, verse after verse began to bloom in my mind.
Because that’s the way it works. At least it’s the way it works for me. When an idea is right it acts like a magnet gathering iron filings. Everything . . . everything flies to the idea, enlarges it, energizes it.
The notes on the novel I’ve just sold will come, and I’ll find my way back inside that other energy that inspired a very different story and bring it to fulfillment.
In the meantime, though, in the meantime, I wake with my brain sizzling!
This . . . this is what I most need to say, to do, to be!
What greater privilege is there than being able to live and work where my deepest energy compels me?