Hey, Pamie: “How do you know what you want to write about?”

Happy New Year, everybody. I’m guessing you were feeling really proud of yourself yesterday because you didn’t break your resolution to be more productive/write every day/outline that screenplay/etc.

And now here it is, Jan Two and you’re already trolling blogs for inspiration. I get it. I do it, too. I am taking a break from the things I’m working on to do a quick Weekly Procrastination because while I’m sitting here working, I’m also thinking of you. I mean that in the most literal way. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about the audience. Sometimes I picture a reader, sometimes I picture an actual audience of bodies in the dark watching the finished product. I think of my script or my story as one I’m telling to a real, live person.

We tell stories differently depending on who is listening. How you talk to a first date sitting across from you in a dark restaurant is different than how you gossip on the couch in your pajamas with your best friends. You know how to play to different audiences, how to keep them interested. Don’t forget to use those skills when you’re writing.

So, here we go:

Dear Pamie,

I have been enjoying your series on writing. I am one of those “just a blogger” people, so I especially liked your last one with all the yelling. I am hoping you will yell some good advice at me, too.

I love to write. By day, I am a librarian, and I love that as well, but something about writing hits the sweet spot. I like to write about myself, hence the blogging. But . . . what good is that to anyone? Who am I to think that I am a special snowflake? I feel like I know what my voice is but I don’t have a story or a message. What should you do when you love to write but you don’t know what you want to say? People always tell me that I should write fiction, because I love and read a lot of fiction, but I don’t have characters or a story inside my head, so I don’t think that’s in the cards for me. I took some vague first steps and signed up for a conference on memoir writing with an author I admire. Any other advice? How do you know what you want to write about?

Thank you!

All of the “special snowflake” stuff I addressed in that yelling answer linked earlier, so I’m going to skip the part where you sound a bit apologetic that you like to write. Shorthand answer to that: when the things you’re saying about yourself could also be said just as easily by Eeyore, perhaps you need to lighten up about your self-worth.

But your very last question is the good one. How do you know what you want to write about?

Look, you sort of answered it right in your explanation. You said: I like to write about myself.

Guess what? That’s what we’re all doing.

We take an idea and we put ourselves in it. We hear stories about something that happened to someone and we manipulate it through our own weird brains. Stand-up comedians are talking about themselves. Bloggers are talking about themselves, even when they are talking about cooking.

So back up some more. Other people have told you to write novels. That’s kind of a huge first step, because novels are long and I can tell you they’re kind of a bitch to write. You will feel overwhelmed starting at a novel when you don’t even know what you want to write about.

Okay, so you like to write about yourself. Your memoir class will teach you how to expand on that further, and will probably go a long way toward getting you to love and embrace your blog. One thing you could do for yourself is give assignments. This week on the blog I write about high school. This week I talk about mistakes I’ve made. This month is LOVE AFFAIRS I REGRET.

If you give yourself a task you will have structure, which will make you feel less like you’re just out there babbling to the universe, talking about doing laundry and what you ate for lunch. That’s what Twitter is for.

And maybe you like to write fiction, but you think you don’t have any characters or story. That’s a mistake, because you like to write about yourself and I’m guessing you are a multi-faceted, interesting human being with surprising thoughts and revelations. That’s a character! That’s probably at least three characters, because I’m sure you’re not the same lady every day. That one you are when you’re at your worst? That can be a fun character to write.

As for stories inside your head – take it from the Wonder Killer herself – you have them. All you need is an “as if.”

Write about yourself as if you’re thirteen. As if you’re fifteen. As if you’re about to get married. As if you’ve just quit your job. As if you just landed on Mars. As if you just found out you’re the last librarian on earth and you must save the future of the public library system. As if you just woke up from a crazy night of drinking and Brad Pitt is in your bed. As if you dropped your iPod and a dog grabbed it and started running and you’re chasing this dog and you end up getting hit by a car and the driver is the One Who Got Away. Let your imagination run wild and see where you take yourself. If you’re nervous to do this in public, don’t put it on a website yet. Keep it on your own computer (or paper journal) and work on it until you like it. Until you’re ready for someone to read it. Or never let anyone read it. Just see if you like to do it.

Don’t worry that you have to write a novel. Storytelling takes all different forms. Write a short story, write a play, write a treatment for a screenplay, write a video for You Tube. You already have a job as a librarian, so why make writing feel like work? Give yourself the freedom to play.

I was thinking about your question this morning as I sat down to work, because I was remembering the time that I didn’t write for a living. I was writing all the time. I couldn’t wait to start writing. I was filled with ideas. Writing was fun and felt like an escape. Writing was what I did with all my spare time.

Because it wasn’t my job. My scripts and journal entries didn’t get turned in, they didn’t get graded or rejected. (Well, that’s not true once I started submitting my scripts to contests, but still.) Everything I wrote back then was a possibility. And while I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, because it felt like I was taking a huge risk with my life putting words out there and making dream-plans to be a “real writer someday,” what I had back then was the freedom to surprise myself.

Oh, and one more memory your letter brought back. Back when I lived in Austin, I’d submitted a play I’d written to a local theatre. I never heard back, and didn’t think anything of it. A year later I was at that theatre again for a play festival, where I was a one of the winners with my newest script. Somehow I ended up in the main office and realized I was standing next to their slush pile shelves. I flipped through and found my old script, which had a slip of paper sticking out. The coverage. It said (and I promise you this is what it said because it haunted me for a long time, even though I was there as a winner of the festival for that theatre!):

Funny, great characters and fun story, but ultimately lacks a world view or sheds light on something important.

I hear “ultimately lacks a world view” in my head a lot when I’m writing, probably because it was the first time I’d ever read anonymous feedback about me. Now, because of the Internet, I could read vicious criticism about me all day long if I wanted to. But back then I was a fragile new writer who believed if one person thought I lacked the skills to be a writer, then everybody would probably think that. But I’ll tell you, I got a job this past year specifically because I wrote “Funny, great characters with a fun story.” Suck it, world view!

Okay, so all I’ve really done so far is remind you that you can write about anything. Your question also addresses the very important part of writing. I have all these ideas. How do I know which one I need to be writing? Which one is what I want to write about? How do I know when I want to write something?

For me, I get to a place where one idea or character or scene is playing over and over in my head, until it’s pretty much voices talking to me when I’m in the shower, when I wake up in the morning, when I’m working on something else. The story starts to take shape like I’m remembering a dream I had, and that’s when I start trying to get some of it down in some way (because we get distracted, we forget, we talk ourselves out of it for months). Sometimes I hesitantly talk about the idea with a few people to see if it excites them. And if more than one of them go, “That’s a good idea,” it moves up a little higher in my brain queue until I’m excited to work on it.

(Oh, I love an act one. It’s so exciting and fun. So filled with all the ideas you’ve already had. Then comes act two. Act two is hard.)

I have kept from yelling at you, and I think I wrote too many words to tell you the short answer to your question, which is:

Don’t worry. Just write. Something will eventually grab your attention and focus and before you know it, you’ll be “writing something.” Either your blog or your memoir or a piece for This American Life or all three, you’ll start to recognize when you have something to say, when you feel something about what you’re writing, and when there’s an audience eager to connect with you. That’s when you’ll know you’re onto something, that you are writing the thing you’re supposed to be writing. I hope you get to experience that feeling soon, because it’s the best.

All I really did with this question was answer, “You can do it!” But isn’t that all we want to hear on Jan Two, when we realize our new promises and declarations are a bit overwhelming and hard? YOU CAN DO IT! DON’T LET THE HATERS WIN!

(There. I did a little yelling at you. For love.)

[If you have a question about writing or television or novels or screenplays or any of these places where I write words and other people read them, send an email to pamie at pamie dot com with the subject line: YOUR WEEKLY PROCRASTINATION.]

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  1. Kari

    Thanks, Pam! I think I have had little sparks of writing the right thing, and you are right. It is amazing. I will follow that feeling and try to trust it.

  2. dgm

    OK, I know you just answered Kari’s question, but it was like you answered mine. So thank you.

  3. Dani

    Is it wrong that my first response to that line of criticism was “PARALLEL CONSTRUCTION *FAIL*?” I love when I think that somebody else’s bad grammar means anything about their actual content.

    But seriously, if you just take out the middle, that criticism of Pamie’s writing was just right. “Funny, great characters and fun story… sheds light on something important.”

  4. Judi

    Wow, this is AMAZING advice. Thank you for taking the time to help not only Kari, but all your readers. And thanks to Kari!