I saw my friend Lan Samantha Chang read on Monday night. Her new book, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, is about two poets who meet in an MFA workshop taught by a charismatic professor. I haven’t read the whole book, but the opening chapter Sam read was compelling enough to make me continue on my metro ride home, and I’m quite eager to see what happens to the young men and to see how questions about the role of art in contemporary society play out.
One thing that Sam said about the process of writing the book--her third--resonated with me. During the Q&A, I asked if it was hard writing about writers, considering that she knows so many (she’s the director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop), and she told the audience that for a long time this book about the poets was “a secret project.” No one knew this is what she was writing; she had another third novel that she felt she was going to write. Yet she kept returning to this one. Finally, she showed her manuscript to a trusted reader who said, “Actually, this is your new novel.”
The secret genesis seemed very important here. When I commented, later, that in many ways the “secret project” might seem more like the process of writing a first novel, the book that you’re not sure anyone will read, she agreed, which made me think about the things I’ve been working on lately, sort of in secret, and how pleasurable they are to me, partly because I have no plans or intentions for them, and there are certainly no expectations: not even my own. I’m just…writing. For fun. And it is definitely fun to have a secret.
And, this is a giant step away from where I am or from Sam’s comments, but this conversation also reminded me of that old question: What would you write about if you knew that no one would read it? (And by “no one,” the question really means the people you’re worried about getting hurt by and/or angry about your story/poem/memoir.) Identify that story—and once you do, it’s hard not to suddenly see the ways it’s crept into your work anyway…and it’s hard to keep holding it back. And maybe you shouldn’t? Maybe that story could be YOUR secret project. After all, who will know but you?