So what are you writing next?
I get asked this quite a bit. Who knew such a simple question would be so fraught? On the one hand, Yay that people are interested in what I have to say! On the other hand, baked right into the question is the assumption that I should be working on something new. I, too, would like to have a new project brewing. The problem is, I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know so stop asking me! But wait, no, keep asking! Maybe that will move this process along!
Six long years elapsed between the release of Sabbath in the Suburbs and God, Improv, and the Art of Living. I’m greatly enjoying marinating in the practice of improvisation, traveling around to churches and other organizations to share the principles of improv and connect them to life, leadership, and team dynamics. Heck, I’m still getting invites to talk about sabbath, which is very gratifying, even though I currently give myself a solid C+ in that area of my life. Still and all, I sure hope the time between books two and three is much shorter than six years. That means I need to be on the lookout now for the threads that will weave together into that next book.
But I also don’t want to push things. One of the things I appreciate about improv is the emphasis on trusting the process: taking the next faithful step even if you don’t know where you’ll end up. We’ve all probably had those cringe-worthy moments that come from trying too hard, or from rushing the cake out of the oven even though the toothpick doesn’t come out clean. So I’m making it a goal to trust that the right thing will come when it comes.
But how do you know when the right thing is the right thing? I know writers who can crank out a new book every couple of years. I don’t understand how they do that. Good for them, I guess—my stuff seems to need to ripen much longer. Or maybe they’ve learned something I haven’t yet, about risk and setting big audacious goals and trusting yourself to meet them. I tend to wait and amass ideas and snippets until I pretty much know where the project is going to go.
What if I said, “I’m going to build this bridge,” in faith that the plans and materials would come? Or maybe that’s just not my way, and can that be OK too? Gah!!! Mind in knots! (As Robert De Niro said when giving out the screenwriting awards on a recent Oscars broadcast, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”)
Last week, a colleague posted this quote from author Susan Orlean in a writers’ group on social media: “For me, writing is really just learning about things that interest me, and then trying to convince you to find them as interesting as I do.” My friend adored this quote (as do I) and said, “Not sure what's next [for me], but I wonder if we gave ourselves permission to indulge our weird interests a little more instead of trying to catch the wave of the next big thing or impress other people, we’d have more fun writing and [paradoxically] grab more readers?”
Thank you, Internet, for the right thing at the right time. My friend is absolutely right. And it broke open this whole next-book thing for me. I’m currently workshopping some rough material with a small group, wondering if that can turn into a larger project. Who knows if it will, but I'm sure having fun. I’m also back to regular journaling (Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages), turning over the soil and sowing some seeds.
I recently discovered a new-to-me podcast in which actor Adam Scott and comedian/writer Scott Aukerman geek out about their love for the band U2 (the podcast is called “U Talkin' U2 To Me”?), which later morphed into an REM podcast called “R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?” Their enthusiasm is charming and infectious, and the show seems to have little utility in terms of their careers. They do it because they love it.
The podcast is a little… flabby? (they could use an editor), but they’re so likable I kinda don’t care. They recently had a live show in San Francisco that featured an REM cover band from Buffalo called Dead Letter Office. They managed to keep a secret from the band that REM guitarist Peter Buck would be on the show to play with the band and also do an interview.
Here’s the episode in question. The first part is a prelude to the live show, in which they’re in the studio and are (verbosely but earnestly) describing in great detail the many machinations they devised to keep Peter Buck a secret from the band until the moment he walked out on stage. It’s a moment of pure delight in the spirit of Susan Orlean: indulging one’s enthusiasms, and creating an experience in time. Not because you hope for a big impact, but simply because it’s fun for you, and you hope, your audience.
A few of you dear readers are writers yourselves. For those of you who aren’t, and who’ve stuck with this post this far, I wonder about the connections to your own life. I wonder if you, like me, try to divine the next right move, even though your deeper self knows better: that chasing after “right” can feel forced or inauthentic. What would it look like to lean into your own idiosyncratic joys and share those with the heart of an evangelist? To be, like Mary Oliver, a “bride married to amazement”? Maybe we’d all realize that the outcomes are mere by-product, and that process is everything.
I don’t know what I’m writing next, but I know that’s my task for the moment.
Thanks to writer/pastor colleague Heidi Haverkamp for the Susan Orlean quote and rumination… to check out the wonderful enthusiasms of her heart and mind, here are her books.