I’m an Associate Fiction Editor at Atticus Review, but I’ve had a two-year lull in my short fiction and flash fiction writing. Hard as it’s been to take my foot off the writing pedal, I had to admit to myself that a big new day job, my freelance writing business in the infill, and three teens was a hill that required all my horsepower. My brain had a queuing system, it was standing space only—even for important matters like my health—so there wasn’t room for rumination. Lately, I’ve been feeling bereft about losing my process into creativity, so I’ve been trying to find gentle pathways back in. In particular, I’ve been searching for stimuli that feels kind to me as the ‘artist’ instead of attempting any artistry.

Most useful of all, I’ve tried to value time to wonder and notice. Drained during the last 24 months, I had been coming to the page without this foundational thinking time spent and consequently, my writing rarely flowed. I was only able to catch the shadows of thoughts.

So, I scheduled bite-sized blocks of time where I had no expectations of myself to feel inspired or produce. I redefined what ‘doing’ meant to me. And the moment I removed the pressure to do what I thought I wanted to do or should do, my mind started doing what it needed to do.

Quickly I realized it would be useful to me to try to distill what it is that captures my attention in the fiction I enjoy. I decided that ‘good fiction’ gives me a desire and the sufficient means to process what I’ve read. I realized part of my enjoyment of reading is feeling able to answer the question: What is the writer trying to say?

I tested the theory by sitting in front of a bookshelf in my home and making the following list from the first books that caught my eye. For each author, I spontaneously continued the following sentence: What I think they’re saying is…

Miranda JulyLook at the ways we hurt each other.
Wendy ErskineLook at how we’re trying here.
George SaundersLook at the stories we tell ourselves.
Toni MorrisonLook at the injustices we bear.
Kathy FishLook at the life in the small moments.
Raymond CarverLook at the ways we understand love.
Jennifer EganLook at how easy it is to get sucked into the f**kery.
Margaret AtwoodLook at how believable the unbelievable is.
Alice MunroLook at how it can all pivot on a moment.
John IrvingLook at how we’re masters of our destiny.
Ann PatchettLook what can happen if we follow our hearts.
Kamila ShamsieLook at what it takes to respond.
Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieLook at what we think we ‘have to be’, and who we find out we are.
Zadie SmithLook at how we’re unique, and yet the same.
Donal RyanLook at how love can shape us.
Annie ProulxLook at how we can’t escape the truth.
Shirley JacksonLook at our vulnerability and our power.
Sally RooneyLook at how hard we make it for ourselves.
Salman RushdieLook at how our history shapes us.

I am looking forward to doing this again. Each of the answers above represents a snapshot of my personal connection to the writing I was thinking of at the time.

The exercise gave me a sense of relief because I remembered that the writing process is a quest for that distilled summative sentence. When viewed that way, the blank page becomes a place for the words I write now, but the value of my words is in the sum of those added and subtracted at a moment in the future. I don’t have to know what I am trying to say now. All I need to know is that I will keep asking questions of my writing until I can offer enough for my readers to form their own effortless understanding of what they think I’m trying to say.

Photo by Keith Vaughton, used and adapted under CC.