Friday, August 8, 2014

"What should I write about?"


When people ask this, I think, "Seriously???" (I have the extra question marks there in my mind.)

Really, though, people who tell me they are writers, or want to be writers, ask me this. It's difficult for me to imagine. Personally, I never have a shortage of things to write about—I don't have enough time.

But maybe it's coming to writing from a different place. Maybe it's a place where you know you want to write because you enjoy it but you don't know 
what it's for. Or a place where you know that writing has value to you in figuring things out, but you have a lot to figure out and you're overwhelmed.

Maybe those of us with a million things to write are not overwhelmed by the amount ideas and we just store those ideas somewhere until we're ready to take them on—we've already trained ourselves to get through the “There's a whole world to write about and I don't know anything” mindset. We've tuned into our perspective.

Or maybe we're simply comfortable with ourselves after writing so long. I remember being 20 and knowing I was a writer. Being a writer seemed to give me access to so many things and there were so many possibilities. Often my writing was scattered with those possibilities. Often my writing did nothing at all. 

Or maybe you are coming to writing later in life and you've been working your ass off for the last 30 years. You can lose yourself in the corporate world. I've worked in banking; I know how it is. Work consumes your life—and then there is family, and socializing, and networking, and exercise, and taking care of yourself, or taking care of everyone else and not yourself. 

The writing life is wholly different and much more introspective. You going from acting and reacting and trying to improve your situation in life and getting done what needs to be done... to rumination. You give up being what you need to be to fulfill the role that you've been hired for—and your family and social group see the difference. Sometimes it's upsetting for them.
But to be a writer, to know what you are writing about, you have consider certain things and continually ask yourself questions, and from this come the things that you can begin to write about.

Here are a few that I can think of: 

  1. When no one is around, when you are alone in the dark, who are you? When no one is paying attention, when you let your mind wander as you walk down the street or through the grocery store aisles, what are you thinking? What are the recurring questions in your mind? What are the things you wonder about? Who are you when you are all by yourself? Write as that person.
  1. Watch the life around you. What is moving so slowly it's barely noticeable? What is happening in the shadows? Under the rocks? What is it doing? What is its existence?
  1. Eavesdrop. People watch. Wonder.
  1. When a question springs forth in your mind, don't look up the answer right away. Take the old-fashioned approach and think about it, try to answer it, think up different possibilities. Remember when we had to go to the library to get the answers to things and sometimes it took us days or weeks to get there? We had to turn questions around and around in our heads. We developed long, ongoing thought strands. These are the strands that bring on complex and layered thought. They bring on new ideas.
  1. Listen to sounds, rhythms, tone, intensity, sound on top of sound. Stare at things longer than you normally would. Look for visual patterns, varied shades and saturation levels of color. Notice the smells in each place you go. Try to put words to the smell of things as you smell them. Live inside that smell or image or sound for a few moments and notice every detail. 
    I'm weird, I know, but noticing these things can be evocative.
  1. Let your writing overlap your personal life. It's your life that gives you things to think about. What are the most humiliating experiences you've gone through? What about them was humiliating? Why? Keep drilling down with why questions until you get to something that surprises you. Then you have something.
  1. Totally fall in love with your writing. Get turned on by it. Make out with yourself in your mind. Don't restrain yourself. Mental masturbation is okay. You have to revel in it to have the guts to think you have something in which others will find value.
    Plus, it wears off when you realize it's crap. It's all crap.
    It's okay to write crap. In fact, it's necessary. You have to write crap to get to your genius self.
    Then you have to cut out the crap—but that's later.
  1. If your writing is confusing you, it just means you are figuring something out. It means you are taking a new step and growing as a writer.
    Being confused is good. Keep writing.
  1. Tell the truth, the whole miserable, embarrassing, seedy truth. The truth that makes you look like a moron or a fool or a power hungry ass. There will be people who relate and they will love you for it. There will be people who will laugh and they will think you are brilliant, even if you just proved that you're weak.

    There will also be people who laugh at you or hate you, but they're reading your work, aren't they?

    And the funny thing about facing the unattractive roles you've played in your life and owning up to them is that they become less daunting, and the reaction people have to you doesn't seem to matter so much anymore.
    More than anything, readers want truth from their writers. Don't lie because you think you are boring. You're not. You're human. Readers can sense dishonesty. You have to dig through the dust and the moldy papers and pull up the floorboards and shovel the dirt out the graves in the back yard to find your truth because, mostly, people hide the truth and try to forget it so they can get through life and live with themselves.
    You get to be the one to reveal yours. Lucky you.

If you can do all this, you have a starting point and you'll find something to write about. Clever tricks will only give you a topic to write on. Writing means you need to find what is underneath the topic, at its burning core. To get there in your topic, you have to get there in you.

Do you have additional suggestions to break through to the state of having everything to write about?


  1. What a great post! I don't think there is ever a shortage of things to write about - the challenge is figuring out the root of what you want to write, and the way to write it. I like working with writing prompts, not because I have nothing to write about, but because I often have too much and find it hard to focus. Prompts can be good starting points, good for pinning down an idea or a feeling and delving into it.
    I love the list you created. I try to do all of those things :)

    1. I agree--prompts can help focus all those thoughts into something greater. I like your blog, Jennifer. I commented, but then it disappeared. I hope it went through! (I don't comment much. Maybe that's what it's supposed to do.)

  2. Thanks for this post, and your post on LinkedIn. I personally cannot imagine having to ask what to write about, as I have posted on my previous blog offering to give away ideas I will never have time to write about. My problem is sorting and prioritizing from the various notebooks I have for various types of ideas. I try to prioritize the story ideas I think are most crucial in terms of ignored truths that might help make society a safer place.
    Peace, Shira
    Universal (aka MEOW Community Cooperation) Date: Sunday, 24 September, 12014 H.E.
    (Human Era)

    1. Hi Shira. I think that once you start writing and become attuned to the process, you develop an overflow of ideas. Then you can focus on working with strongest--like you are. (And then give away your other, leftover ideas!)