Words on the Street, Revisited #3: Wait, What?

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


It’s overdone, overused and overexposed. But, still, it’s out there, an everyday question that cuts across most places and spaces. It’s made its way into offices, classrooms, diners, exercise studios, and courtrooms, among others. Chances are you’ve either asked it or been on the receiving end of it.

Sometimes, it’s surprise as in, “Wait, what? You’re…” (Think, pregnant! or leaving! or going to Corfu to pick olives!) 

Sometimes what’s needed is just a little more time, a little more space, maybe one more beat. As in, “Wait, what? I’m confused.” or “Wait, what? Say that again. I wasn’t listening.” or “Wait, what? Are you for real?”

Whether irritating or informing, it’s still a question that, distilled down, encourages two things: waiting and wondering. I consider both essential steps in the writing process. So, let’s distill.


As makers, a good deal of our time is spent waiting. We wait for ideas and words to flow. We wait for magic to happen. We wait for responses from editors, publishers and readers. Not always easy. But once we get past the not-easy, a tiny glint of shiny in all that waiting may very well wink up at us.

Last week I showed my undergrads Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius. It’s hard to believe Gilbert first offered these ideas in 2009 and, though I’ve viewed the video many times in the past thirteen years, I always seem to come away with fresh reminders and new ways to apply some of her sensibilities to my understanding of process, both as a writer and a teacher. One of the many questions floated in this clever, illuminating talk is this: Where do some of our best ideas really come from and what happens when they arrive? How do we “brush up against that thing” or find the shiny something that calls out to us.

When I talk to students about this kind of waiting or think about it myself, I liken it to the image of the kid in a big, lush meadow with a butterfly net. Sometimes there’s quiet waiting and other times hopping around wildly when a little beautiful creature comes into view. Full disclosure: I have had some days when ideas can be like little flying, glittery creatures but most of the time they land hard and even with an awkward thud. Okay, now what? Is this a real thing I can do something with? Is it mine to keep?

When we write whatever it is we’re writing, waiting matters. Taking a moment, a breath and beat. Giving ourselves time and space. Exercising patience and a little dose of faith can help, too. Staring hard at that blank, blank page and then maybe even flipping over the angst of its blankness and seeing possibility. The page is a lot like a wide-open meadow.

Have a seat and wait for it.


Wondering (What?)

Okay but then what?

Let’s say the planets align and whatever the form of desired magic appears and you do, in fact, catch it! Now you’ve got the presumed chops you’ve earned from waiting and you also have a great idea. This is the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-put-on-a pot-of-coffee part of the story.

Hopefully the writing flows and you begin to bring the idea, whether it’s a scene, a character, a verse, or the beginning of an essay, to life. You write.

I know I am not the only writing professor who has told a sea of students that essay comes from the French essayer, “to try.” It doesn’t come from a word that means, “I have it all figured out!” or “I know the answer!” It comes from trying.

So does good writing.

The what in “Wait, what?” is an invitation to wonder. To take what lands on those blank pages and to play. Maybe you spread out that idea and organize what stems from it using a list. Or a letter. Maybe you are into bullet points. Or perhaps once the idea finds a home on that page, the wondering happens naturally as you write in narrative form. It really doesn’t matter how it happens, what matters is that it does.

For me, it is during this part of the crafting process, when I give myself permission to explore and ask questions (again, what?) that’s when some of the words, like water, flow.

With a little waiting, plus a side of strong black coffee and faith, that meadow may soon become a patch of wildflowers.

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