Monday, May 7, 2018
Caring About our Stories
There’s a special part of my writing process that I don’t know how to define, I just know it’s there. I call it “the challenge phase,” and it can come up at any time. It usually takes the form of an innocent little question that can stop my typing in mid-sentence.
“Why am I writing this?”
At that point, the answer doesn’t really matter. If it takes me more than a few seconds to feel what the answer is, I stop typing and shelve that work for a while. Sometimes forever.
It may sound like an arbitrary decision, but there is one valuable reason why I do that – I care about what I write. This doesn’t mean I must be obsessed about this particular piece, or that it reflects some deep part of my soul. It means that whatever I am writing still moves me, and I want to see where it goes. If I lose track of that sensation; if I no longer know why I am fleshing out these thoughts, I have to ask myself if I’ve lost track of that, or if I actually care about it.
In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, I sat on a panel at the DePaul College of Finance, trying to explain the crisis to graduate students. A number of us professionals spent two hours hashing out the details of this economic disaster in all its brutal complexity. Very exciting and very educational, but if you weren’t a financial professional, it was likely incredibly boring.
At the reception afterward, a few students cornered me for a personal post-meeting grilling. I was still shaking off the last of my public-speaking anxiety, and despite the gin and tonic, I still carried a little edginess (See previous post, “Staring it Down,” to understand speaking anxiety). One of the students called me on it.
“Have you spoken to a lot of classes about the recession?” she asked.
“Sure,” I answered after a deep breath. “But only five or six this year (it was September).”
The number clearly impressed her. “If you’ve done it so much, why do you seem nervous about it?”
Fair question, but I knew the real reason I was nervous wasn’t entirely about public speaking. I was discussing something I really cared about; explaining the minutiae of a subject that had dominated my career for the past few years. I knew the subject from stem to stern, but I still thought about it, processing the events and poring over the details, new theories coming to mind for consideration. The worst of the crisis had passed, and yet I was nervous about presenting something I knew.
“I’m nervous about these talks because I still take them seriously,” I answered with an assuring nod. “If I no longer cared about this, I’d give you all the details and you’d sense that it didn’t matter to me anymore. And you probably wouldn’t care about it either.”
And that truth really stands out when we write. Our emotions come out in the words we write, and as we grow as writers those come across even stronger. If we are connected to that story, those words rise from the page. If not, they fade away and the reader loses interest as well.
So when I ask that question, “Why am I writing this?” it is a way of finding out if I still care about the story. And that answer can make my writing pop, or it can tell me that maybe it's not happening.