Fifteen years ago, I was studying abroad in England during college and finished John Irving’s The World According to Garp on a train back to my town. I’d laughed, I’d cried, I’d been involved in it as deeply as I ever had any novel, and I knew that certain lines and scenes—Walt dying—would stick with me indefinitely. (They have.) I closed the book and looked dreamily out the window, as I did often at 20. I felt bright and satisfied the way you get after an excellent read or meal, and in full knowledge that I’d loved writing for as long as I could remember, I asked myself if I should try to write books or just read ones like this instead, since I didn’t know how to do what he did. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself or blue at all; it was an earnest question. Writing could be this good, and just reading more Irving felt like one of the best futures I could imagine.
Three years later, I discovered Barbara Kingsolver and in a single year, read everything she’d written to that point. It was right before I went to South Africa with the Peace Corps, so I picked up the Congo-set Poisonwood Bible—her most recent at the time—and loved it so much, I pored through everything else: novels, essay collections, short stories,poetry.
I enjoyed it all, but paid particular attention to her three novels before Poisonwood. They were all good, even increasingly so, but to me, no Poisonwood Bible: these weren’t the stories where she figured out what she could really do. I was flooded with relief. It wasn’t to say I could have written The Bean Trees (her first novel) then or now, but in a flash I realized that even published writers continue to evolve, and with work, maybe I could, too.
Last fall, I interviewed Molly Wizenberg, author of A Homemade Life and Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage, for an article for Seattle magazine. Her blog, Orangette, was turning ten, and she spoke at length about working through it to become the writer she is. She says Orangette has led to all the paid writing she’s done (not to mention two restaurants and her marriage), and this May, it won a James Beard Award: one of the country’s highest acclaims for food writing.
In the blog’s early days, Wizenberg wrote what she called “pseudo-restaurant reviews, poetry-esque stuff, [and] ecstatic accounts of sausage” with no real strategy. In time, though, she realized she enjoyed writing posts that told more stories, and realized “what interested me most was not really food; it was the lens food gave me of looking at my life.”
As an editorial writer who’s done mostly food content, I resonated with this sentiment immediately, but my biggest take-home from the conversation was her regard for practice. She said she’s always had big goals with her writing, and especially early on, she felt a gulf between what she could do and what she wanted to do. The key has been continuously showing up to practice at the blog—on which, she says, she’s never posted daily; generally not more than once a week—and trying to keep matching her standards and writing what she wants to read.
“Consume a lot of what inspires you and keep trying to get better,” she said.
Do we already basically know this?
Am I, personally, living it?
I’m not John Irving, not Barbara Kingsolver, and not Molly Wizenberg. But I’ve got something of my own wanting out, something I don’t even know what it is yet, and it may be slow, and it will probably be messy. We all do, is the note screaming to come out next, whether writing or whatever, and it feels more critical than ever to say that out loud and support each other with it. Creativity can be brutal to just make a date with, but when I manage, I’ve found it meets me halfway and expands. It starts here. It starts today.