In 2018 I released a book called Photography by the Letter. It took three years of research, writing, re-writing, designing, and re-designing, and while it wasn’t as financially successful as I had hoped, it was one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever done. After shopping it around to a number of publishers—all of whom passed on it—we self-published a limited print run and released it simultaneously as an eBook. Opening up the first box of books from the printer and seeing those three years represented as actual objects was a very emotional experience. I sent a copy to Ted Waitt at Rocky Nook, who had been incredibly helpful and supportive while I was writing it. He responded with a lovely email that read, “It is really quite beautifully designed and very well printed. I honestly cannot think of a self-published book that I have seen better production values on. Nicely done!” The book has gotten hundreds of glowing reviews like this, and none of them are wasted on me. As proud as I am of what we accomplished, I remember telling Adrianne that while I would love to write another book, I’d never do another one like Photography by the Letter. The technical nature of the writing was hard, dry, and way outside of my wheelhouse, which is why it took multiple passes to get it right. Still, I loved the process as a whole and have had the idea of writing another book in the back of my head ever since. The question is, which one?
My studios are littered with partially filled notebooks, Post-it notes in a variety of colors, and random scraps of paper that are covered with drawings, doodles, diagrams, paragraphs, sentences, or just single words. Inside my head, the ideas never stop coming—and it’s been this way since I was a kid. It’s something that I am grateful for every day, but it’s often a double-edged sword. As someone who has difficulty making decisions—partially because I tend to analyze every potential path and outcome—trying to pick a single idea to pursue is a challenge that I’ve yet to really master. What if it’s not good enough? What if I’m not good enough? What if I decide to pursue something that turns out to be the wrong idea, leaving the good idea I should have chosen just waiting in the wings? And throughout that inner monologue, new ideas are still coming in. And so it repeats.
In terms of writing, I’ve got dozens of ideas, any of which could go somewhere and end up as something if I put in the time to develop them. But how do I choose which ideas are worth pursuing, knowing that whatever I choose will take time away from my other creative pursuits? I reached out to one of my best friends who, in addition to being a terrific producer and director, happens to be an award-winning screenwriter, and I asked him how he decides what to pursue and how to tell a good idea from a bad one. He said it really depends on the project. If it’s a screenplay, one of the considerations is whether or not it will sell. For example, right now it’s easier to get an action movie made than a character-driven drama because that’s where Hollywood sees the most value. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but the likelihood of a studio even looking at will be greater if it’s an action movie or a potential franchise. He said it’s important to remember that the best ideas are personal, and often they’re the ones that you keep coming back to again and again. Write what you know or at least what interests you, because then if nothing else at least it’s authentic. And whether or not you like it is really all you can control or be sure of. You can’t know how an audience is going to react, but if it’s an idea that keeps coming up or you keep coming back to, chances are it’s worth pursuing. At the end of the day, you write—or paint, or photograph, or compose—the thing you want to see in the world. Sound familiar?
I remember reading an article several years ago that had a bunch of writers weighing in on whether “write what you know" was good advice. While the responses were split pretty evenly, there was one that stood out from a writer named Nathan Englander. He said that while he thinks it’s the best piece of advice a writer can get, it’s also “the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is.” Rather than what you know relating to situations, for him “write what you know” is emotion. The example he gave was around longing and how, when he was 12, he longed for an Atari 2600. “If you have felt that deep longing,” he said, “that can also be a deep longing for a lost love or for liberation of your country, or to reach Mars. That’s the idea: if you’ve known longing, then you can write longing.” I’ve gone back and read some of the ideas that I’ve been considering pursuing and many of them are centered around loss, which I suppose makes sense considering the profound loss that I’ve experienced at various times in my life. I know loss, but that doesn’t mean that the stories I write around loss have to be inherently sad or depressing. Consider a show like Ted Lasso, which is funny, heartwarming, and at times even hysterical, but it definitely deals with multiple storylines around loss. Not only that, the main characters show a variety of reactions to different kinds of loss.
For the month of May, I think I’m going to swap doing my daily Morning Pages with exploring some of the story ideas that I keep coming back to and see where they lead. For the most part, I don’t tend to think in complete narrative arcs, but rather in little scenes and interactions or bits of dialog. Maybe one of the challenges moving forward is to cull through what I have and see whether there are enough scenes and situations to string together into a cohesive story. Then again, maybe I’m thinking about it too linearly.
There’s a terrific video of Quentin Tarantino that’s more or less a compilation of him talking about his writing process from various other interviews and in one of them, he’s talking about not getting ahead of himself and thinking that he needs to have the whole thing figured out. “It doesn’t do me too much good to think past the middle,” he said. “By the time you get to the middle, when you’ve actually been writing, it’s a different story. You are the characters. Things you never could have known before you started writing are now in your blood. I might have a checklist of things that I might want to do during the course of the time, but some of them become irrelevant as you go on. You want to be in the middle of the story. You want to know who these people are. I am trusting that I will know exactly what to do when I get there from having done the work.”
That process of discovery and letting go is exactly what I’m interested in—and it’s hard. Brian Eno said, “One of the things that art offers you is the chance to surrender, the chance to not be in control any longer.” As with most creative endeavors, control is largely an illusion. By and large, we can only control when and where we start. We may be able to guide the process through skill, experience, or intuition, but I think it’s still largely a mystery. Just like it is with my paintings, the challenge will be just to start and not get stuck in the uncertainty of where it’s going to end up, but instead, do the work to get to the middle and let the characters tell me where they want to go.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Richard Avedon’s birth, Gagosian is mounting a new show called Avedon 100 that opens May 4th at the Chelsea gallery. Nearly 150 artists, designers, musicians, writers, curators, and fashion world representatives were asked to select a photograph by Avedon and elaborate on the ways in which image and artist have made an impact on them. The show features both iconic and rare photographs and a number of the works have never been exhibited publicly.
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So many inspirations and ideas, thank you. What you write about Ted Lasso is very true, I had never thought of that and it is also a reason why that series is so well written: it is not only funny but speaks to something deeper in all of us. So the idea is to talk about our personal 'obsessions', or at least that's what I call those ideas that we always come back to (it's no coincidence that my newsletter is called 'The Long Thought', that is, all those thoughts that last for years and stay in your head, the ones you always think about, more or less intensely). Thank you, your words were really enlightening.