The Willits strike again

the Willits strike again
(Royalty-free image from

I’ve been thinking about the Willits a lot this week—you know, those annoying thoughts that show up whenever you stick so much as a pinky-toe outside your comfort zone to write:

Will it be any good?
Will it make people like me?

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

This isn’t the first time the Willits have come to call. I wrote about them last summer when they barged uninvited into my vacation.

But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.

I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.

And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?

Will it be a complete waste of time?

I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.

My Willits, and yours

Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.

I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.

If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:

The Willits are full of shit.

The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.

Here’s what I wrote last night:

Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.

And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.

Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.

Where do you find ideas?: Frequent Questions

Q: Where do you find your ideas?

A: Everywhere I look.

I once turned the plot of The Sound of Music into something akin to a business school case study. That may be the splashiest idea I’ve ever had for a speech—and writing it won me an award. But I try to weave something unexpected into everything I write. And those unexpected touches can come from anywhere.

I read widely, though probably not as widely as I should; I generally only read fiction if a friend wrote it. Fortunately I have some talented friends. I read Harvard Business Review, sure, but also The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. HBR lets me in on what my clients are thinking about, and Vanity Fair yields a lot of great anecdotes I can re-use. But The New Yorker may be the best writing teacher I’ve ever had (of the non-human variety; pace, Ms. Schieffelin). Just about every article from writers like Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell is a master class in style and sticky ideas.

How sticky? Can you remember a specific magazine article you read more than 14 years ago? I can.

Adam Gopnik offers a master class in how to find ideasUnless you’re a subscriber, The New Yorker‘s website only offers an abstract. But Gopnik republished “Mr. Ravioli” in his collection Through the Children’s Gate.

But where do you find ideas?

You think I’m digressing? You asked about ideas and here I’m talking about writing. Hey—without ideas there is no writing. None worth reading, anyway.

I can boil it down to its essence in three words: Show, don’t tell.

So if you’re writing about the phenomenon of hyper-busyness and its impact on our relationships, don’t begin with facts and figures. Tell us a story.

Gopnik opens his essay by introducing us to his three-year-old daughter Olivia’s fantasy life and her imaginary friend Mr. Ravioli. Olivia’s parents have never met Mr. Ravioli—not because he’s imaginary, but because he’s always too busy. Too busy, even, to play with Olivia. Instead, they engage in an endless game of imaginary-phone tag.

Imaginary friends exist to fill a void; but Olivia’s imaginary friend creates a new void. What, Gopnik asks, does this say about his daughter? And about the world we’ve created?

Of course Gopnik gets to the experts, and the theories behind them—the meaty intellectual stuff one expects of The New Yorker. But I don’t remember the article because of what some psychologist said. I remember it because Olivia’s story drew me in. And that made the story—and its message—stick.

You want people to remember what you have to say? Find ideas. Develop new habits, of seeing, reading, going to arts events. (I’m at the theater today.) Go on Story Safari.

You can find ideas everywhere, if you look beyond the obvious. Don’t leave home (to communicate) without them.