This is no. 83 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I feel lately that there’s so little I know how to say about writing in a general, prescriptive sense, despite the fact that I write for a living, despite the fact that I teach writing and can, in that context, usually manage prescriptive statements. The “craft” of writing to me feels synonymous with the craft of sitting still, which I find difficult; or the craft of patiently pursuing the rightest, most elegant piece for whatever part of the puzzle is in front of me; the craft of making little rituals to call forth both order and chaos; the craft of snacking; the craft of eavesdropping. Once, when I was about fifteen and had no aspirations to write at all, I spent a few days with an author of a famous book about teenage girls and their derangements, and she remarked to me that I would be a writer. This surprised and flattered me. I thought maybe she could see something about my mind. “You carry a notebook,” she pointed out. The craft of having a pen on hand.
This tension between the writer’s need to take her mind seriously and the reality that most of the world is less automatically enthralled with it, feels like one of the hardest things to get right, especially for anyone whose written I is themselves. Taking an inner life seriously but not too seriously, I think, is as much a technique or a practice as anything else. Inner life drives most of the writing I find fascinating, whether or not the end result is explicitly about the writer. Take Anne Boyer’s The Undying. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Homie by Danez Smith. Still Life With Oyster and Lemon by Mark Doty. On Immunity by Eula Biss. All different forms (memoir, poetry, researched essay, novel) and all totally about and deeply drawn from a writer’s interiority—their questions, their experiences, their loves, their griefs, their memories. I could now—but won’t—name five books that could be described the same way but feel, to me, solipsistic and masturbatory.
This is the high-wire act with which I am personally concerned from a craft perspective: how to write with your full self, and perhaps including yourself, while not writing in a way that’s just so far up your own navel.
Who cares, who cares, who cares, I sometimes want to write in the margins of my students’ essays. I don’t, remembering the teachers who kindly didn’t write that in my margins though I am absolutely sure they wanted to. I don’t mean the question cruelly—or literally: They care, obviously! And often I do, too—but it would be felt as cruelty, probably. Which is too bad because it’s a worthy question. It’s maybe the most salient question I could present to my students. It is the question I ask myself most often when I’m working, honestly. (I am asking it right now.)
When we say a work is masturbatory, we mean that it was written to please the person who made it to the neglect of anyone else’s pleasure. It is, to use the argot of writing pedagogy, “writer-based,” as opposed to “reader-based.” “Writer-based” prose feels good for the writer, maybe, but it does not do much for a reader—because it has not really considered the reader. It has not concerned itself with whether a reader will, or should, find pleasure or meaning in the experience.
So to consider who might care and why—this is a kindness, an ethic, a canny nod to pleasure. How many people do you want to bring into the circle with you? The craft of obsessive query: Who cares about flower seasons, about autopsies, about writing, a dead lake, a dead musician, a particular septuagenarian’s books? Why would they care? Just because I care, will anyone else? Assuming that not everyone will care about everything, whom do I wish to address? Who would I like to make care?
Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas.Thumbnail: Sean Benesh