Ask the Writing Teacher: A Spork in the Road

April 11, 2013 | 6 4 min read

4-1Dear Writing Teacher,

I’m guarding my heart. I saw a colleague a couple nights ago and we talked about standing on the ledge of a writing project but not wanting to get too involved because what if this is not the one? What if it’s not a book? So I need to get honest. I’m stuck at a three pronged fork in the road — a spork. I’m stuck at a spork in the road. I have three possible projects, all different, but all gleaned from some of the same material, so I’d have to make a Sophie’s choice and I’m spooked. I wish someone could tell me what to do, but in the end I know no one can tell me. Sometimes it seems really trivial, like getting stuck on what to wear and I just need to forget about it and just get dressed and get the fuck out of the house already.  Or is it more deliberate than that?  I don’t know… any tips?


My immediate response to this letter is to cry, “A spork in the road?  I love it!” Should one of your projects be a memoir, I suggest you call it that. I’ll be first in line to get a signed copy.

In all seriousness, though, I identify with the fear you’re experiencing. (See: this.) A project that you haven’t yet begun can still glitter in the mind, but as soon as you set it down to paper, the thing is tarnished by the limits of your skill and talent. And what if you start something, only to realize it isn’t anything at all? As I typed that question, a metaphorical ice-cube slid down my spine.

The thing is this: yes, you just need to get dressed and get the fuck out of the house. The house is safe, but it will suffocate you. You can’t pace those rooms forever. (Side story: In elementary school, my sister could never figure out what to wear. It was a problem. More than once, my mom had to drag her into the car. My sister would be weeping, in her pajamas, and she’d end up at school in whatever clothes my mom had tossed at her. There’s a lesson in here, young grasshopper. Namely, my sister was struggling with emotional issues that were getting misdiagnosed as fashion quandaries.) I suggest this, Stuck: welcome with open arms the failures that inevitably come with any writing project, and be comforted by the fact that you can rewrite later. Also: it’s when you need to write yourself out of a pile of shit that the interesting stuff happens.

coverI am intrigued, and a little troubled, by the wording of your question. Your opening phrase, “I am guarding my heart,” is followed by, “What if this is not the one?” Honey, you aren’t a contestant on The Bachelor, you’re a writer! Even if the project you do commit to (out of the three possible ones) ends up being the best one to pursue, it doesn’t mean you can’t later take one of the others to the fantasy-suite-that-is-your-desk. Unless you fancy yourself the next Harper Lee (okay, who doesn’t?), your career will be made up of many books. So what if they’re all gleaned from the same material? Look at Alice Munro — she writes about mothers and daughters, train rides, and tall women over and over (and over) again, and still we salivate at the thought of reading her latest story in The New Yorker. In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” If what astonishes you, if what has traumatized you and exhausted you and inspired you and remade you, remains the same for your whole life, so be it. Your audience will follow your always-evolving relationship to this material. It will be your material.

And stop guarding that heart! (This is true for both writers and contestants on The Bachelor — it’s the only way to win. That, and being a sweet Southern girl with a killer bod.) Amy Hempel has quoted her teacher Gordon Lish as saying, “Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” Amen, amen, amen.

Now that my pep talk is over, here are some (sort of) practical tips to help you on this sporked journey:

1. You might try working on the three projects simultaneously. Mondays, try Project 1, Tuesdays, Project 2, and Wednesdays, Project 3. On the fourth day, pick the project that sings the prettiest, and work on that. You might take a decade and end up with three books. Or you might pretty quickly see that one project is the least tarnished and abandon the other two (for the time being). Choice made. If the day-to-day schedule doesn’t suit you, try week-to-week, or one project per month.

2. Take a moment and consider your worst writing nightmare. Is it that you waste a year on one project, only to realize it was the wrong one? Is it that all three ideas end up sucking? I say, revel in that sick fantasy for 20 minutes. Really: set a timer and close your eyes. Cry if you must, scream, go kick the garbage cans outside. Get it all out. Okay, done?  Now that you’ve indulged yourself, get to work.

covercover3. Even if you make a “bad” choice in writing, or make a wrong turn, remember that many amazing books came to authors as they were struggling through other books. Marilynne Robinson has said that’s how Gilead came about. Jeffrey Eugenides writes about this very process in his essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot.” And I just read this article about Maria Semple and her second novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette: “And after spending two years attempting to write what Semple described as a “commercial” novel about two sisters in Colorado, she abandoned the project completely.” I am sure the day Semple decided she couldn’t continue that book was a dark one. But, you know what? Out of that came this terrific novel that tons of readers love. You must proceed from the notion that your ideas aren’t finite, that there’s always another glittering book around the bend. Let me repeat: Your ideas aren’t finite.

4. Just start, and let the work be your guide. The project that deserves your immediate attention will let itself be known, it will pull you in like an ocean current. And if it doesn’t, well, keep swimming until you find it.

(You’re swimming now, see? Forget the walking/road image!)

Good luck.

The Writing Teacher

Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Enjoyed this very much!

    Reminds me of things that can end up in a writer’s notebook. Sometimes you start a project and it runs out of gas, but you retrieve from it one compelling character, image, or location (even, in one case, a powerful memory of the scent of night flowers). The problem is the bits and pieces don’t “belong” anywhere yet. Keeping them in the notebook, browsing through them from time to time might result in something down the road.

    How about jotting down some ideas about all three projects and see which one yells at you the loudest? Which one is hottest?

    As for matters of the heart and guarding it, when offered choices, I think we all know what our heart wants. The scary part is the fear of looking like an idiot when we go after it! :) I remember meeting somebody on a perfect, warm evening, with everything magic, and this guy refused my proposal to sneak onto the terrace, eat cherries, and smooch, since we had “just met.” He suggested a coffee date later in the week. Very proper. But what a drenching of cold water. I cringe thinking back on it!

    Getting back to the concept of hot ideas. I think ideas in some strange way are “attracted” back to you as well. If you approach them and they reject you, or the moment passes, it may not be the right thing…

    Regards, “Moe Murph”

  2. Loved this, Edan! It really spoke to me as I travel down this particular novel-writing road feeling like I’m wearing a blindfold, a sleep mask, and blinders all at the same time. I have no idea what I’m going to end up with, but I’m committed to at least reaching the end (i.e. “The End”).

  3. So good, so true, both the question and the advice.
    There is a line in an early song by Dar Williams, about being in therapy and the therapist says when Dar gets stuck to “try the other parent.” I have been working simultaneously on both a memoir and a novel for more years than I care to admit. Lately, when I get stuck, I try the other project. Somehow, it turns out they feed each other. Who knows, the memoir may morph into a novel. It really is like trying to find a new place in the dark at night. Mostly you just feel lost and afraid you will have to go back home.

  4. “that tons of readers love”.

    Maybe that’s why there are so many diet books. You only have to have a couple dozen fans and then you’ve got tons of them!

  5. Great article, and sound advice. Finding our style of writing…by that I mean whether we’re a one-project at a time writer or three or four simultaneously–is really important. Treat your writing ideas as if you were assigned three different articles to write. The idea to pick one project for different days of the week, can be a really useful idea. And then going ahead, because no writer ever really knows how a piece, no matter small or large, will end up. That’s the joy and mystery of writing.

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