by Meg Dowell


When you’re a writer, people–writers and non-writers alike–ask you a lot of questions.

They ask you where your ideas come from. How you get so much writing done in a day (or why you don’t). If you think you’ll ever be as successful as [insert their favorite author here].

For me, the hardest question to answer–possibly the most terrifying question anyone has ever asked me–has nothing to do with my ideas. I have a few theories about those.

It has nothing to do with whether or not I really want to be a writer when I grow up. I have always known that. I have never minded that my ambition seems childish and impossible to some.

It’s a question I should have seen coming, but didn’t. A question that I should have been able to construct an answer for, but couldn’t.

The question is this: “How do you put your ideas into words?”

A seemingly harmless question, right? How do I take an idea and iron it out and make all these pretty words appear on a page.

I guess I … well, first I …

The first time this question came to me, I realized I did not have an answer.

In a way, breaking down how I write a story would mean paying more attention to every single detail of my own…so much so that the magic, the mystery, might disappear.

But I did try to think about it. Only to come to the conclusion that when I write something, so much of my brain is engaged in the process that I will never fully be able to comprehend it in its entirety.

I realized that I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, in control of my words.

That’s a scary thought, for someone like me.

Sometimes I enter a flow state and write a few thousand words without stopping to let my mind take a breath, and when I finally do and skim over a few lines of what I’ve just written, I find myself asking my own question: How did I write that?

There is no answer. Instead I must ask a follow-up question: Can I do it again?

Answering questions is just a part of being a mentor, a literary role model, if you will (I’m not saying I am one; I’m just generalizing here). People become fascinated by the way you express thoughts and they want to believe there is some magical formula for making it happen.

There isn’t. But being asked those kinds of questions makes you think, makes you view the process of writing in a completely different way.

It’s the questions you cannot answer that drive you to seek answers out. Force you to dedicate your life (or at least, a healthy portion of it) to helping others find the answers, too.

I cannot explain it. I cannot tell you my exact process for transforming an idea into a series of words and sentences and stories on a page. I think it is much more complicated than sitting down and writing until something comes to form. At least deeper down where you cannot reach.

What I can do is show you the value of your ideas, and help you form your own processes, and guide you into establishing your own rhythm, so that you can pick out those ideas most meaningful to you, and somehow, put them into your own words.

I don’t have all the answers. But I do know a thing or two about how to ask the right questions.




Meg Dowell is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.