random thoughts, writing

On Joan Didion, Lady Gaga, and Writing What is Real

Hi there.

Man, I’ve missed writing.

It’s not like I haven’t been writing at all. I actually do a lot of writing on a daily basis at work, but it consists mostly of billing notes and other types of documentation that are sent to insurance providers. These notes must all be written in a particular way using a particular vocabulary, and writing them is quite repetitive and a bit tedious and not at all creative.

I’ve also been working on revising a research paper – a restructured chapter of my dissertation – for publication in an academic journal. There are things I enjoy about academic writing, such as that it’s analytical and structured and original…but there are also things I don’t enjoy, such as that it’s sort of excruciating. Haha.

What I haven’t been doing much of lately is writing that I just *want* to do, like just because. And I’ve missed that.

But what to write?

I know that I want to write things that I myself would like to read. So sometimes when I’m thinking about what to write, I think about authors who do the type of writing that I love.

Some of the writers I admire most write essays and articles about things in the world today that need to be written about. Right now I’m reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and it makes me want to try to write something sharp and important like the essays in that book (some of them, like this one, are available online and you should definitely check them out). I think of other favorite writers who bring important topics to light, sometimes through an intensely personal lens, writers like Ta-Nahisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones and David Remnick and Ashley C. Ford and Meghan Daum and Lauren Duca.

I think, too, of writers I have loved for a long time, like Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro and Joan Didion, who write calmly and strongly, who create places and spaces as real as the room I’m sitting in now (typing this while eating a bowl of oatmeal, with a stack of unopened mail on the chair next to me). By the way, I’m told it is clichéd to say that you love Joan Didion? Whatever.

I’ve also been listening to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast a lot lately. On this podcast, which only puts out one episode per month, the New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, invites a famous writer to read and discuss a short story written by another writer. It’s nerdy and artsy and awesome. I’ve written almost no fiction in my life and would have no idea how to even go about it, but I think of short story writers like Alice Munro and Tessa Hadley and Lorrie Moore, and they make me want to spend my evenings and weekends creating tiny, perfect worlds.

Every weekend I catch up on three New York Times columns that I’m been reading religiously for a long time: Sunday Routine, Social Q’s, and The Ethicist. Each one peeks into other people’s lives from around a different corner. They’re all fantastic.

And finally, there are the blogs I love. Most of my favorite blogs are very personal, and that’s why they’re compelling. Even if the blog is technically considered a food blog or a personal finance blog or a “lifestyle” blog, I’m probably reading because I like the writer and the way they write and the honesty they write with.

So these are all things I love to read, and they all inspire me to write. But what should I write? Can I possibly become an essayist, an investigative journalist, a memoirist, a columnist, a blogger, and a short story writer? It can be a little overwhelming and even a little paralyzing when there are too many things you want to write, too many possible directions to go in.

Here’s what I really want to avoid though:

When I was in 9th grade I was given a blank journal as a gift, a nice hardbound journal with a cool M.C. Escher tesselation design on the cover, and I wanted to make good use of it, so I started a journal. The problem though was that whenever I wrote in it, I had the idea in the back of my mind that if I were to die, someone might find my journal and read it, and this made me a little anxious because I didn’t want to leave any writing behind that would give anyone a bad impression of me. So I wrote about a sort of glammed-up, cooler-than-reality version of my experiences – like if I went to a party and felt uncomfortable and unpopular, I would write that I’d had a great time at a party with all my amazing friends. Or if I had a crush on someone at school, I wouldn’t mention this at all because I didn’t want my future reader to think I was a pathetic victim of unrequited love. It was the 1990s version of a shiny, happy, carefully curated Instagram feed. It was an exercise in self-deceit. And it was utterly useless as a journal.

I watched Gaga: Five Foot Two the other night (big Lady Gaga fan here), and she says about her creative process that “you have to go to that broken place of your heart to write songs. It’s like open-heart surgery, making music. Every time it’s invasive.” And, ok, so writing on a blog is pretty different from writing “Million Reasons” or “Poker Face”, but what I take from that statement is that whatever I’m writing – whether the topic is politics or money or food or goals or any random thing I may be thinking about – the main responsibility I have towards myself and towards anyone who is reading is to make sure that what I write is real and comes from me and from my own experiences. In other words, I have to start from the inside and work outwards. To write, as they say, what I know.

So stay tuned.

2 Comments on “On Joan Didion, Lady Gaga, and Writing What is Real

  1. Well, I am certainly excited to see this next phase of your blog. And I love Joan Didion, too, and I don’t care if it’s cliched to say so. Meghan Daum is a fave, too. And I love Lorrie Moore’s early stuff. I mean, every writer you listed is pretty fantastic. I think you can be all of those things: journalist, essayist, columnist, blogger. I think blogging is really a type of essaying and column writing. It’s all intricately related, which is what I love about it. It gets looked down upon by some pretty big names, but I do not care. It’s still the writing I’m reading. If I find value in it, then the writer is on to something, yeah?

    1. Thanks, Amanda! Yeah, blogging feels a lot like essay writing to me a lot of the time, except more free form or something. I still don’t know what I actually want to write about, so this was an “I’m stalling” post more than anything else, but it was also a fun excuse to gush about all the writing out there that I really love! And yeah, it is interesting how blogging is sometimes viewed negatively, but hey, as you say, there could be any type of writing on a blog. It’s just a free(-ish) platform to write on, nothing more. 🙂

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