Using Private Writing to Locate Your True Subjects

This week’s article is a second excerpt from Rebecca McClanahan’s instructional book Write Your Heart Out: Exploring & Expressing What Matters To You, published by Walking Stick Press. It originaly appeared in 2003.

One of the problems with being a student who is “good with words” is that you may learn early on how to be glib, how to say what the teacher wants to hear in five hundred words or less, and get a decent grade for it. If you were one of those students, as I was, you may be lucky enough along the way to meet a teacher or editor who calls your bluff, insisting that you find an honest way into and out of a subject of your own choosing. Or, on a momentous birthday–forty, fifty, sixty–you may suddenly realize that life is too short to waste any of it writing from someone else’s passions rather than from your own.

I’m not suggesting you can’t discover passion for a subject that’s suggested or assigned by someone else. Like an arranged marriage that unexpectedly develops into a steamy coupling, writing that begins mildly, at an intellectual or emotional distance, sometimes grows into heartfelt writing. But when you have the freedom to write anything you want, why not begin with what matters most to you? Assuming, of course, that you know what matters most. It took me years to set aside notions of what I should be writing (meaning someone else’s assignment) and attend to what Samuel Butler called “what refuses to go away.”

One way to locate your most urgent subjects is to ask yourself, “Where is my heart breaking?” or “What breaks my heart?” Make a list of the fears and concerns that keep you awake at night and interfere with your days. Think of your list as a rosary you finger one bead at a time. Rather than use large, sweeping terms (world hunger, abortion, nuclear disarmament, the disintegration of the family) name specific people, problems, fears, and issues. “I’m afraid my mother will die in a nursing home.” “I’m worried that my daughter’s husband is having an affair.” “How will I make ends meet when I retire?” “What if the biopsy is positive?” Even if you later choose not to write about your own experiences, listing your personal heartbreaks will help you locate public issues for which you feel a strong passion, commitment, or interest. Your concern about your mother, for instance, might lead to an examination of nursing home conditions; your fear of developing cancer might prompt you to research genetic predispositions to the disease.

Another way to uncover what matters most is to cut to the chase: Imagine that you have less than a year to live. When I was working with hospice patients, I quickly learned that dying patients don’t waste time with the unessential. What little energy they have goes into more primary issues than what’s on television, who got the promotion they’d hoped to get, or how much money their neighbor made on stocks. They urgently wish to locate lost relatives and friends, to tell their life stories, go for walks in the park or indulge in sensual pleasures they’ve denied themselves–chocolate, roast beef, manicures, massages. If you knew that you would die soon, what would you write about? What truths would you tell, which secrets would you unlock? What pleasures, denied until this moment, would you allow yourself? What journeys would you take?

A less emotionally demanding way to find your true material is simply to make a list of subjects you know a lot about. The list can include tasks you do well, jobs you’ve held, hobbies you’ve mastered, or subjects you’ve researched. Try not to let other people’s notions of what’s interesting or important affect your choices. In what area are you an expert? Do you know how to diaper two babies at once? Make your way through a foreign country where you don’t know the language? Catch a fish with your bare hands? Have you discovered a way to coax your fourteen-year-old stepson into actually speaking to you? Look at the jobs you’ve held throughout your lifetime, both volunteer and paying. Chances are, you’ve accumulated wisdom you’re not consciously aware of.

You can also uncover hidden passions by asking yourself, “If I could write about only one subject (or person, place, event, obsession) what would it be?” By limiting your choice, you’ll be forced to bypass peripheral or insignificant issues. It’s often said that each writer has only one story to tell, and that she continues to tell this story again and again, in various ways. Ask yourself what story claims your first attention rights.  Mark Doty, in his poem “My Tattoo,” poses the question in another way:

….  what noun
would you want
spoken on your skin
your whole life through?

How’s that for an essential question?  Not only must your passion be expressed as one particular word, it must also be a permanent marking, something you could wear for the rest of your life.

Once you’ve chosen the subject you feel most passionate about, write about it for as long and deeply as you can without worrying about how others might respond. Remember, this is private writing; you don’t need to be concerned with making your subject appealing to others. Your aim is to discover a subject so intriguing that you could come at it again and again, from any number of angles, and never exhaust its mysteries.

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Using Private Writing to Locate Your True Subjects — 3 Comments

  1. I very much enjoyed Rebecca McClanahan’s article, and her suggestions for finding one’s real subject-matter, as opposed to writing for someone else’s requirements. Having spent some years in academia, I see now why writing those papers was so much more of an agony and chore than the writing I do now for my own amusement, therapy, pleasure, search for meaning or truth, and any other number of purposes for spending my time in this way! I love writing now, and look back in amazement at why I was not loving it then! It’s obvious now. I’ve also kept journals for years and even taught journal-writing classes for a while (outside of academia) and can see how that kept the torch lit that is lighting my way now. I write mostly short memoirs these days, and making lists has been a powerful tool for me of discovery. One of my favorite lists is from John Bradbury’s book, Zen in the Art of Writing, where he suggests making a list of concrete nouns such as:


    And so on. Make a long list of such! It’s surprising how many objects from our past pop up with loads of significance one you start doing this.
    The next thing to do with these nouns, then, is to turn them into titles by preceding them with the definite article, “the”.

    So now you have:

    The Shoes
    The Cup
    The Letter
    The Jacket
    The Train,
    The Photo
    The Window
    The Mirror etc etc etc. It’s lots of fun, and sometimes quite revealing!
    Pick one that leaps out at you, put the title at the top of the page, and off you go! Just love it! 🙂

    • Sheila, Thank you so much for taking the time to share Bradbury’s “lists technique” with us and sharing some of your own history with creative writing. I know many Writing It Real members will appreciate this, too. The excercise you have shared along with McClanahan’s have me ready to unplug for a bit and write up a storm!

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