Finding Your Subject Matter

I love talking about subject matter, because it’s a sneaky way of talking about writer’s block. As most of you already know, I’m making it a personal mission to dissolve the myth of writer’s block. This is partly due to the fact that to suggest a state of mind exists that inhibits all writing for no good reason is enough to block writers in and of itself. Even if you’ve never experienced such a thing yourself, hearing others talk about it is like telling children that they don’t need to worry about the monsters under their beds. Writers have enough to contend with without having mythological states of mind lurking in the recesses of their psyches.

More importantly, I don’t like the idea of writer’s block because it grossly misstates the conditions that get in our way, therefore making them much harder to overcome. I don’t mean for a minute to suggest that that writers don’t get stuck. We do. Every single one of us has known the agony of feeling we should be writing when we’re not, or approaching the page with every intention of getting something down, only to have it stare back at us with its infuriating white blankness. But there are very good, very simple reasons for these stalemates, and they don’t include the sudden inability to write, or a cessation of all creative energies without reason, or a muse who is MIA. In actuality, these stalemates usually result from a misalignment between what we think we should be writing and what we actually have to say.

First, the bad news. Sometimes, we don’t have anything interesting to say. It happens. Nothing in nature blooms all the time. In fact, trying to force oneself to bloom when your creativity needs to regenerate is the quickest way to leap into an endless cycle of mediocre output. Unfortunately, modern society has taught us to believe that when it comes to good work, quantity equals quality, and that if we’re not writing it must be because we’re lazy/stupid/untalented artists (which is also exactly — and conveniently! — how our society continues to destroy artistic impulses). It takes a huge leap of counter-cultural faith to stand up to this pervasive line of nonsense, but it can change your life to do just that.

To begin with, you can challenge how you react to that blank page. When you don’t have anything interesting to say, it doesn’t mean you need to just stand around agonizing and waiting for the moment when you do. In fact, this is another surefire way to shoot yourself in your own foot, creatively speaking. Instead, you need to put down your pencils and get yourself out into the world. Serve, volunteer, listen, read, move. Pick a verb and go with it, but makes sure it involves getting your head out of the sand and filling your hands with an activity that is directly connected to your heart. Subject matter, in other words, is generated from a life well-lived, and if you find yourself with nothing to say, the first thing you need to look at is how deep the impression of your butt is on your chair.

But Dr. Percer, my Greek Chorus of students is whining, what if I go to Africa and build houses and come home with all sorts of material and still find myself staring down the blank page? Can’t I plead writer’s block at that point? Sorry, but no. If you think you have nothing to write about, it’s probably because you’ve made the common mistake of assuming that when you come home from building houses in Africa you should write about building houses in Africa. But subject matter rarely works like that. If the first most common form of subject-matter-related writer’s block is a failure to allow for the regenerative phases of your creative life, the second is an unrelenting policing of what you think you should or should not be writing about.

Here’s the only thing to worry about when it comes to subject matter: you need to find a subject, and it should matter to you. It doesn’t need to matter to anyone else. It doesn’t need to be encapsulated into an elevator pitch before you even begin – in fact, elevator pitches can become the basis for some of the worst creative shackles. You don’t even need to know why it matters to you – if you feel moved to write about kittens in a blender, then by all means, write about kittens in a blender.

Usually – and I wish I could underline and underscore this – if you’re writing well, where you begin your writing should not be where you end up. The best writing is a process of discovery and surprise, and it comes from a willingness to take great personal risks, such as truly listening to yourself even when you think that what you’re trying to say has no future in it. Do you think Nabakov woke up one morning and thought, “Hey, I know what let’s right about, Vera – let’s write about pedophilia!” No, he wrote about pedophilia and it became a novel that takes reveals a breathlessly keen insight into aspects of the human condition no one wants to talk about. Do you think George Orwell decided over tea one day that the most sensible and compelling thing to write about was an allegory based around animals in a barn? Or that Melville decided preemptively that a whale-sized novel about a whale was the way to secure instant literary popularity? Or that Poe realized that the surest way to make his refined, collegiate New England peers celebrate him was to write a short story about one man locking another into a hidden room in his basement?

The bottom line is that WHY you’re writing is so much more important to your sustainability as a writer than what you’re writing. There’s no lack of vibrant subject matter in the world around us. But to write about something just because you think others will find it important/saleable/noble is to rely on others to provide the foundation for your writing. Let me tell you from experience: that never works. The harder and simpler truth is that your own best writing will come from a deep, personal urgency that only you can access. And you won’t access it every time. Sometimes, you’ll need to rekindle your connection to that urgency by going out and getting your hands dirty. (I consider this devotion to oiling and fueling your own engines writing, btw.) Sometimes, you’ll need to find it by following the curious urge to write about kittens in a blender, which might lead you to ponder the place of casual violence in our society, which in turn might open the gates to a realization that you’ve been wanting to write about the monster-under-the-bed culture we’re all trying to live through right now.

The point is, if you really and truly extend some trust yourself, and don’t judge what arises based on whether or not it makes you look like an industrious writer with great potential, you’ll find yourself in a much more enviable position than being an industrious writer with great potential. You’ll be a writer who is actually writing.

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