So You Want to Be a Writer
Chloé Williams talks about writing a newsletter, forgetting the audience, and learning your craft.
Chloé Williams, my identical twin sister, would rather walk home than take the L train at any given moment. She has never sent a text without a typo and she has perfect french style curly hair which has become a signature look even at just 24 years old. She could, if asked, drink 8 cups of tea on a rainy day just because it’s romantic. She’s in love with Jude Law and she isn’t afraid to tell you about it. She once tweeted that the most integral part of her personality was how “stupid hot” she is. With not one care about your thoughts on the statement. A lover of sangria and a certified hater of tequila. A book lover who has a hard time taking suggestions from her twin sister. Most importantly though, she’s a writer. The kind of writer for a generation. A true artist. Talking about love, tinder, and feeling old even though she isn’t. In November she started “Chloé in Newsletters” where once a month she picks a theme and tells you all about it. Stopping not at just an essay, but taking photos, drawing, and making mood boards to really tell you what she means. Both of us, after our second vaccination, sat down and talked about what it means to be a writer.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Ava Williams: Chloé, the first question I have is why writing? Why not photography or painting and don't say it's because of skill.
Chloé Williams: No!
AW: Because I know you're bad at drawing and you still do it.
CW: And your photography could use some work
BOTH: Laugh for too long at their own jokes
CW: I feel like, and no disrespect to any other art forms, this is my opinion...immediately just immediate controversy.
AW: People are unsubscribing from my newsletter right now
CW: Well...photographs really show you emotion but it's also your interpretation of the emotion, whereas in writing I like the directness. I am telling you how it feels for me. I like the puzzle of finding the right metaphor to describe what I feel to help other people understand. Especially when it comes to writing about people that I know in real life. I like capturing their character in a way that describes the little things that they do. I like writing that down. I think it is very touching to read a line of writing and connect with it so explicitly.
AW: You have a highly successful newsletter. Each month you produce a new theme. How do you decide what the theme is? What makes a good theme for you?
CW: Most of the time I keep bumping into the theme as the month ends. I keep seeing it around and it is on my mind. So, for example, going into December, I was doing some healing, I was talking to my therapist about healing. I saw a lot of stuff about it on the internet and in the books I was reading. It felt like this is what has been on my mind, and this is what I want to talk about because it's fresh. What makes a good theme for me is a concept that I feel I can really capture the essence of. If I were to do the theme of love, I would want to have something that is tangible and mine, not just what I think love is about. I would write about what I personally think love is in a very particular sense. I feel like all my themes capture a very particular mood even though they can be broad.
AW: What does a successful newsletter look like to you?
CW: I think when it captures everything that I am thinking about in all the mediums that I like. Including photos and little drawings and lists and music and videos. I like it when it feels like a complete thought. I think if I did the newsletter and it just had a column, I do not think I would feel as fulfilled by it. Just to end on my word is a little pretentious. I do not want it to be, this is how I see the world, and this is how it is. It is more, this is how I am figuring stuff out and I want to show you how I see it, how I think it, how it sounds. So a successful newsletter is something that feels complete, it has all the elements that have been circling my brain.
AW: How do you relate your work or your life back to your audience? How do you do that so well? What about your work helps other people process their life? I feel like people are always understanding what you are saying, which is the goal obviously as a writer, but why do you think people connect so well with your work?
CW: Sometimes, I think about the audience a lot and that makes my writing worse. I try not to think about the audience. I consider will they have questions about what I have said. Or am I covering all my bases? It's not a matter of my work being relatable. I am telling the truth and I am one person, but I am not a unique case. There is going to be someone here who is going to relate to it. There are going to be people who do not relate to it. Someone messaged me about grief and told me they did not relate to what I wrote about grief because they have never lost a relationship. But a lot of people said that they had felt the same. Sometimes I write slowly because I am trying too hard to be relatable or smart. I have to really empty my head sometimes and think, well, how am I seeing this? What do I think about this? Not what other people are thinking about. That can be a challenge. Obviously, I want my newsletter to be relatable, but I want it to be relatable because it is the truth.
AW: You’ve talked about writing slowly and that being bad sometimes, do you write fast then? This is a loaded question, I mean for photography you could argue both for me I take photos fast and slow depending on who you are talking to. But what is your process? How do you see it?
CW: In most cases, I will go on a walk by myself, I like to leave the apartment and be alone and just do nothing because it helps me think. I do not go out and say I am going to think about the theme because it is already circling my brain. When I am alone, I let my thoughts flow. Usually, a paragraph comes, I write it down on my phone or I text it to myself when I go home. When I copy and paste it into a document I think about the newsletter and the theme. I try to figure out how I can connect each paragraph that I have produced and what I am really trying to say. The foundation comes quickly, in bursts. The editing is slow. I could write my column in the first week and a half of the month and not finish editing it until the very last second. But it changes, you know, most of the time it is short bursts. I call them anchors because they are the things that anchor the piece, even if I delete everything, those are the things that stay.
AW: Is there anything you believe bad practices for writing? Or any good practices?
CW: That's a good one... I know I struggle because a lot of ideas on being a writer are based on people who make a living writing. Those rules are not applicable to everyone. Some say you should spend everyday writing; you should sit down for an hour or whatever. Not everybody has the time to do that. I was a student and I worked part-time. I couldn’t sit down every day to write even if I wanted to. But really the best practice is thinking about your pieces. Thinking counts as writing. I spend every other minute thinking about my newsletter, which is writing to me. I think a bad practice that I frequently do is writing in bed.
AW [from bed]: Right like what we are doing right now.
CW [also from bed]: talking is different.
AW: got it
CW: Also, not to get controversial, I think a bad practice is coming in too hot. It is always good to do your due diligence. I think an amateur writer will very quickly make an Instagram for their poetry. But you should respect the culture of writing and the history and people who have done it before you. You shouldn’t do it for “fame” or followers. It’s a respect thing.
AW: I get that. With photography, at least now with everyone buying film cameras, I love that people like film but...I wouldn’t call you a “photographer” in the same regard as Richard Avedon is a photographer. You can take pictures for fun but having a point and shoot does not make you a professional in most cases. Not all, but most. Not trying to gatekeep photography but I don’t pick up a pencil and call myself an illustrator.
CW: Yeah, working adjacent does not mean you understand the history. I think you really should understand the people that came before you and the history of the medium you are choosing. I could not have written the poems I did without Philip Levine or essays, without ever reading Cheryl Strayed.
AW: Right of course.
CW: I don’t want people to have imposter syndrome, but if you have imposter syndrome it’s probably because you know how good the people who came before you are. That’s how you know I’m not talking about you right now. I deeply love writing in any form, I'm doing this because I really love it and I don’t care if I gain any more followers on my newsletter this is enough because I love it that much. If that’s how you feel, then you’re an artist, I think.
AW: An artist is someone who, on some level, is truly passionate about their work and doesn't care how far it goes, but that just that they're doing it.
CW: Yes, and that’s why nepotism is such a terrible thing for me. Like Brooklyn Beckham went to college and dropped out. I don’t care if anyone drops out, but did you drop out because you hated school? Or did you just know you had the chance to shoot for magazines and you might as well take it? Do you understand the prestige of what you do? Or is it just easy for you to get the opportunities that you do have? Do you understand your craft? Or are you privileged? Obviously, each circumstance is so, you know, nuanced. But he gets these elite jobs and it is hard to see if he understands that these are not normal opportunities for 20-year-old photographers. I’m obviously an outsider looking in but. You know.
AW: Right sometimes it’s more about if you really should take the opportunity.
CW: Yes, like all my poetry is so intentional. I think the bad practices are the people who aren't intentional about what they're doing at every step. I edit to add foreshadowing, commas, and suspense. I'm not just hitting enter to make the length of the lines the same. Some people are not super intentional with what they are doing, and I think that's the disrespectful part. Not understanding the craft at times, not everyone, but for some, that makes a mockery of art.
AW: Is there a moment in time that you remember where you were like, now I want to be a writer?
CW: There was one time that I was in the car with Mom, and she said, “I kind of always wished you'd be a writer.” And I was like, damn. I gotta do that. It clicked; I was stupid, I wanted to be famous, but I did not understand what I wanted to be famous for. I only understood famous through actors and actresses, so I just thought I wanted to be an actress. I don't really know who I thought I was because I didn’t do theater or anything. But when mom said that, I knew that I liked writing and was fine at it. But I didn't think of it as something I could be. I didn't think anybody noticed that I wrote.
AW: Okay, so my last question--
CW: That was quick. I have lots of interesting things to say
AW: Well we are 21 minutes in and they [the audience] have to read this.
AW: My last question, I just recently read one of Anthony Bourdain's books. One of the last chapters was titled “So You Want to Be a Chef” where he gave advice for people going into that field. I am posing the same question basically. Someone tells you they want to be a writer. “So you want to be a writer” you start, what would follow that statement?
CW: You have to accept that even if it's true for you, it might not be true for someone else. You can't take it personally, or any critique personally. You should be honest in your words. Have a thick skin and you need to be sure of yourself. Is this really how it feels? Is this the truth? You have to write really bad stuff. You have to write even when it's bad and you have to accept that it's bad and keep writing anyway. Then you have to write a really good piece and find out it's actually bad too. That's a very key component. You have to continue to find out that your stuff is actually bad and get over the idea that it will ever be perfectly good. Don’t edit a piece forever, accept that it will never be perfect because nothing ever is.
No matter how old you are, you're always going to feel like you can't say what you have to say, so you have to say it anyway. You'll never be 30, 40, 50, feeling like now I have enough authority with my life to say what I think is true. It always feels like, why would anyone trust me? That's the exact reason why people would trust you. People want to connect to other people. No matter what their age, there's always going to be 20, 30, 40, 50, or 60-year-olds wanting to connect to something and feeling like they can't. But most importantly what you have to understand is, every good writer is also a bad writer. They write cliches and they don't write when they're supposed to write. But they edit and they become good writers anyway.
I assigned Chloe five prompts all to be completed in a single sentence, just as a little sneak peek into her work if you haven’t read it. Here they are:
Write a sentence about your favorite memory from this year so far
The excitement of surprising Dad the day before his birthday when he thought, like the four years before, we wouldn’t be able to come home for his special day.
Write a sentence describing yourself for the audience of the newsletter
I’m a lonely person who daydreams about brushing her teeth with her future husband and lays in bed for too long.
Write a sentence describing anyone else of your choosing for the audience of the newsletter
My brother is the renaissance man of art, give him any medium and he will master it in one week with something beautiful to show for it.
In a sentence, romanticize something, anything, ideally something mundane
I must brush my teeth, you deserve to kiss something fresh, but come with me I don’t want to leave your side. (refer to my earlier daydream)
Write a sentence that hints at your next newsletter
I’m throwing a party and you’re all invited.
This Newsletter is Brought to You By:
Beds, for being a bad practice but great support system
Annotations, for helping make everything about me
Jude Law, <3
Teeth brushing, for being hygienic and dreamy
Editing, for making me a good writer even when it’s bad
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Newsletter: Chloe in Newsletters
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