Still Life

            We invited writers, artists, and musicians to share a favorite creative prompt or craft lesson, or to tell us about a book, poem, song, or film that affected them. We asked them to offer opinions and experiences on creativity, artistic processes, and the role of arts in culture. We're offering their responses here as occasional features on creativity that we're calling Still Life.

            This edition of Still Life features an observation on a question often asked of writers: What is your book about? Dana Wildsmith offers her views on how writers respond.

            Dana Wildsmith lives in north Georgia where she and her extended family work to preserve a 125-year-old family farm in the midst of encroaching development. She teaches English to adults of many nationalities in the English Literacy Program of the Adult Literacy Program of Lanier Technical College. She has worked as a Writer-in-residence for the Devil’s Tower National Monument and the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. She teaches poetry workshops throughout the United States. Her poems and essays have been widely published in both literary and commercial journals, including Yankee, The Kentucky Poetry Review, and The Chattahoochee Review. She is among the writers featured in the University Press of Kentucky’s Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. Her other published works are: Alchemy, Our Bodies Remember, Choices (an audio collection), One Good Hand, and Back to Abnormal. A new book, One Light, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press. 

Writing What You Don't Know Yet
by Dana Wildsmith

What’s wrong with asking a writer what their book’s about?”

My sister had shared a post about things you should supposedly never ask a writer. Not once, but twice, the list admonished friends and family to never unwittingly ask this of the writers within their personal sphere. My friend John was baffled. Why not? Seems like a friendly sort of query.

I’d wager most writers react in one of three ways to the question that seemed to John to show such innocent interest:

Panic: I have no idea what the new book is about, which is going to sound completely idiotic to my questioner. “Well, then what are you doing in there when you hole away with your computer?”

Evasion: I am quite certain as of this moment that the new book will be a (novel, memoir, fill in the blank), but I could find out I was entirely wrong once I get a hundred pages into the writing, and I don’t want to look like a complete idiot when I have to say, “Oh, heh, heh—ignore what I said before. It turns out I’m writing a collection of nature poems, not a fiction thriller. Honest mistake.”

Hostility: Can’t you see that I’m feeling my way blindly down a dark path, guided only by my faith in my instincts as a writer? Why do you want to make it harder by reminding me how little I can yet see?”

Not that we generally own up to any of these immediate ways of reacting. We are most of us well-brought-up, polite humans.

“Oh, I think it’s a novel,” we answer with a shrug, “but it may turn out to be non-fiction.” And then, before our questioner has time to confirm to themselves that all writers are wobbly-headed wastrels, we slyly shift the conversation to the local gossip about whether or not that new Kroger shopping center will happen or if it’s all just talk.  

Or, “I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on,” we answer with a slightly apologetic tone. “It kind of kills the idea.” To which our questioner narrows her eyes in a way that lets us know she thinks we are in truth binge-watching episodes of NCIS when we’re alone in our “office”.

The truth of it, at least for this writer, is that I cannot describe what has not yet taken form. It’s like trying to paint a picture of a baby-to-be based solely on their ultrasound print-out. Who knows what color his hair will be, or if he’ll even have hair? Who can compare her skin tone to a rose petal or an almond before that skin is lying before us on a plump baby body?

A mother-to-be knows for sure there’s a baby in there, but little else. And don’t tell me she also knows the gender—I have known at least two families who had to exchange all those pink clothes when Jennifer turned out to be Jaden, ultrasound info notwithstanding.

I know for certain I’m beginning the process of writing a new book, and in my most secret writer’s heart I believe I know what kind of book it will be. 

But we shall see. In the meantime, I don’t mind if you ask me what the new book’s going to be about, but just don’t be surprised if the answer I give you has to be changed in the long run.

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