If friends and family happen to know you’re a writer, you’ve probably had this experience. Mostly it happens at Christmas parties. Inevitably it’s an uncle, probably the one nobody likes. You’re standing alone, because you’re a writer and Christmas parties are the very last place on Earth you want to be, and said uncle (possibly drunk) corners you near the plate of shortbread and says, “I’ve got this great idea for a novel.”
After fifteen minutes of telling you the great idea, he says, “You’ve gotta write about it.”
If all the hairs on your arms stood up while he was talking. If, as Emily Dickinson describes the experience of poetry, the top of your head came off. But only in those cases. Otherwise, my advice would be to steer clear.
See, I don’t believe we choose our work. Our work chooses us. Our minds and bodies react to an idea in a way that is unmistakable. You know if it’s right for you, no matter how crazy it seems. It’s the story only you can write.
George Saunders has a slightly different take on it, but better (obviously) because he’s George Saunders: “I love that Flannery O’Connor bit about how a writer can choose what he writes but he can’t choose what he is able to make live. So you find out that you write well about leprechauns. Well, guess what? You’re the leprechaun guy. You probably didn’t want to be, but if that’s the only thing that has energy, well, there you go.” (Check out the full interview from Salon.com here)
We writers are obsessive creatures. Once we discover our little mountain, we circle it, over and over for the rest of our lives. It’s like worrying a loose tooth that will never fall out.
One person’s great idea is inevitably another person’s story-disaster. That’s why editors and publishers seem so fickle. They’re just human. They like what they like. And so do you. Haven’t you ever picked up a Booker prize winner only to scratch your head by page ten and wonder – what were they thinking?
It’s also why trying to follow the market or discover ‘the next big thing’ is destined to fail, unless it’s your next big thing. Try writing a vampire story, if you don’t think vampires are the coolest thing since the man bun. Or a dog story, if you’re a cat person. It will be like giving Harry Potter the wrong wand. Shit gets broken. It’s messy. People will ask you to leave the room and not come back.
George Saunders again: “I’m going to admit that there’s four or five things in my life that are really important to me. I’m guessing it’s the same for you.”
Those are the things that choose you. And they’re the ones you write about – most likely over and over again. You hold them up to the light. You lock yourself in a dark room with them. You take them out to dinner and find a way to make them talk. For your whole life, you’ll probably be working out those four or five things, and they will be enough.
Never apologize for what you write about. Vampires? Cool. Dogs on surfboards? Why not?
Also, free advice: stay away from Christmas parties. Small talk shrinks the brain.