The First New Question

Jessica Wilbanks

Oct 25, 2021

Through my day job, I recently had the chance to work with Angela Blanchard, the former head of BakerRipley here in Houston and an expert in community development. Angela is a big believer in appreciative inquiry: an approach that recognizes and builds on strengths rather than weaknesses. 

When Angela starts working in a community, she doesn’t focus on what’s wrong. Instead, she asks people to tell stories of what their neighborhood is like at its best and what they value most about living there. She seeks out people and organizations who are already supporting kids and families and builds on what’s already working.

I’m so used to deficit-based thinking that when I first read about Angela’s work, I found it hard to believe that simply focusing on strengths could generate new possibilities for change. But the results are undeniable. 

The more I think about this approach, the more it feels true for the creative process as well. When we focus on what’s not working in a story or essay, we become overwhelmed and lose momentum. Maybe that’s why traditional writing workshops can feel so discouraging. We might spend a few minutes at the beginning of a workshop talking about what’s working in a piece, but it’s usually just a prelude to the much bigger conversation about what’s wrong. 

Some time ago, I came across a powerful question that I started integrating into my writing workshops: Where is the wealth in this piece? 

I wish I could figure out where I first came across this. I love starting workshops this way, because the question takes it for granted that there is already some sort of wealth contained in a given piece, and invites participants to reflect on where that wealth lies. 

The more we name the sources of wealth in a piece, the more we are able to see its true potential. For instance, if readers provide feedback that the wealth resides primarily in the voice (sarcastic, funny, and irreverent) and the topic (a refreshingly honest account of what menopause is like), then a writer might make choices in revision that double down on those strengths. She might look for ways to sharpen that voice and delve even more deeply into the topic—perhaps by cutting some of the material that didn’t elicit such a strong reaction from the reader and expanding the material that did resonate. 

Books, stories, and essays don’t need to be perfect to be loved by readers—they just need to contain enough wealth to keep the reader engaged. In my own reading, I’ll happily forgive a somewhat clichéd plot or clunky characterization if a writer regularly surprises me with astute observations about human nature, seamlessly immerses me into a world I know little about, or dazzles me with surprising and beautiful language. 

By naming and identifying sources of wealth in our work (instead of just rattling off a laundry list of problems), we can generate new energy and momentum during the revision process. In Angela Blanchard’s words, sometimes change begins with the first new question.