“I write to analyze. And I analyze to improve.”
By Nina Badzin, WTP Guest Writer
Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, advice columnist, co-founder of The Twin Cities Writing Studio, wife, and mother of four. She has been (and in some cases is currently) a contributing writer at Brain, Child Magazine, City South Magazine, Edina Magazine, The HerStories Project, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, Kveller, TCJewfolk, and Writerunboxed. Her fiction has appeared in Compose Journal, The Drum Literary Journal, First Day Journal, The Ilanot Review, Independent Ink Magazine, Literary Mama, Mash Stories, Midwestern Gothic, Monkeybicycle, Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac, Sleet, Scribblers on the Roof, and Talking Stick Journal.
My writing identity fits no particular niche and my writing career headed toward no particular goal. I’ve had short stories published in obscure literary magazines and articles buried deep in the belly of the Huffington Post beast. From my one writing mind came a Pushcart Prize–nominated short story but also a column about Twitter tips on a popular website for writers. What kind of writer am I?
Eight years ago, I wrote two novels that will never see the light of day, and rather than attempt a third, I’ve spent the last seven years building a regularly-visited blog, writing essays for other sites, completing freelance work for local print magazines, and enjoying the comfort of regular gigs as a friendship advice columnist at herstoriesproject.com and a book reviewer at greatnewbooks.org.
I am a working writer. Still, I feel pressure to identify an actual goal: another novel? Targeting more prestigious publications for my essays? A short-story collection? Maybe I should rework my published essays from the past decade into a coherent whole—though I’ve read other essay collections punctuated with harrowing life moments I wouldn’t be able to include in my own work, either because my life has been too easy, or because some of the more interesting stories are not mine to tell. In other words, I want too much for family and friends to still speak to me in the end.
The fact is, more often than not, I realize I’m not ready to pick one goal, because I can’t seem to stay on one topic. As Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life when discussing where a writer should begin, “There is something you find interesting for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain to you because you have never read it on any page; there you begin.” The topics I find interesting keep changing, which is why I’m grateful, for the most part, that I haven’t forced myself to squeeze the life out of one idea like I’ve seen some writers do when a single post goes viral. My Twitter posts did well, but do I want to be a “social media expert?” Goodness, no. An op-ed I wrote for a Jewish publication questioning the move from membership dues to free memberships was shot around the internet like rapid fire and even made its way into some rabbis’ sermons that year. But do I want to expand that one piece into a series or an entire book requiring me to research the past and future of synagogues? No thanks.
While often the topics I’ve chosen are hardly issues I’ve never seen on any page, I write for the exact reason Dillard implies—to figure out why I’m interested, why I care, or why I’m bothered. I write often, for example, on the topic of friendship because I wonder about behavior, motivation, intention, assumptions, and how to get better myself at giving people the benefit of the doubt. I’m not an expert on friendship. Not at all. I simply care enough to explore the topic. I write to analyze. And I analyze to improve. Could those years of monthly columns form a book? They probably could, but do I want to recycle the already well-mined material of those posts? I don’t know, which probably means, no.
In the writing craft book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd describe the ultimate goal of an essay. “You ask the reader to take you seriously, to honor your conviction even if your ideas provoke more than they persuade. You want engagement at least as much as you want belief. You welcome the silent dialogue with the reader, even if the reader is disputing with you. After all, you are often in dispute with yourself: beliefs are reached in the course of writing, and essays trace the course.”
I like Kidder’s and Todd’s words for the way I choose my topics and even the trajectory of my career. I’m feeling my way as I go, exploring what interests me and taking opportunities that feel right at the time. Are they finally the right topics for me to invest my writing time and energy? I only know they’re right for now, which is why the only goal I’ve landed on is to allow myself to keep floating from topic to topic and form to form. I have a main character for a novel in mind now, a woman who is sixty-nine-years-old and recently widowed. I allow myself to think about her when I’m not on deadline for a local print magazine or busy with something else on or off the page. I can wonder what will happen to the rest of my writing life if I give that character the time she would need to thrive. And then I realize I will keep moving forward with my writing career the way I always have: I’ll worry later about what comes next.