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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, September 21, 2007

what to write about?

Yesterday I talked about the problem of whether one knows enough about how to write as a possible barrier to progressing with the work: the "technical barrier".

Another barrier is what I suggested might be called the "subject barrier": whether one knows enough about what to write--one's subject. Do I know enough about what I'm trying to talk about?

Even before that is the related problem of what to write about in the first place. What is my subject? This, for me, has been an especially difficult one.

Throughout my life I recall having critical and judgmental thoughts about people who say things like, "I want to be a writer, but I don't know what to write about." I would think. What makes you think you want to be a writer, then? Maybe Wal-Mart greeter is more your speed.

Not coincidentally, that very description fit myself. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know what to write about. I'm still that way. Very gradually, over the course of years, I found the subject-matter for this work, The Mission, and decided to go ahead and start creating it. I knew it would take me years, but felt that was fair enough, since it had taken me years just to arrive at the project, to choose it.

Before this, there have been many other projects: some complete, but many more incomplete. Aside from The Odyssey, which did see the light of day and make it onto the air, I would say that they were all more or less the wrong thing. What do I mean by "wrong"? Ultimately, I think, a mismatch between the subject and my true self, my true being.

How do you tell whether what you're doing is consonant with your true being? I'm not sure. Spontaneous passion is one clue: do you feel a real, emotional charge from the idea? Or is your enthusiasm really coming from some other source, such as the belief that you can have a hit, or that you're going along with some desirable crowd? Fashion is a powerful motivator. When I worked as a clerk at North Shore West Claim Centre in 1996, some of the estimators talked enthusiastically about their new cigar humidors--there was a buzz around cigars and how to appreciate them properly. Cigars were fashionable--they were appearing on the covers of magazines. How many cigars are those guys smoking now? What are they doing with their humidors? Much of fame and fortune is related to fashion, but, speaking for myself, I'm much too slow-moving to be able to respond to fashion effectively, and, more importantly, fashion is too shallow a motivator for anything that could be called art.

Only your intuition can tell you whether you're really on the beam of your true self. Intuition is sure, but quiet--easily drowned out by other inputs unless you tune in to it. It's that knowing voice within--the one that we wish we'd listened to when we later get into trouble by not following it. I'm slowly learning to listen to mine. Very slowly, it sometimes seems.

A person truly in tune with his or her intuition is not seduced by externals: fame, fortune, fashion, peer acceptance. These things provide external reassurances that we're ok, we're doing the right thing.

But for an artist, these things are inauthentic (they're inauthentic for everyone, in my opinion). In the long run, our success in life cannot be measured by how well we conform, certainly not in an individualistic part of the world such as the West. We should conform only as much as is necessary to provide us with the freedom to be ourselves.

All right: so finding the subject of one's work is an intuitive matter. There's no quick way of finding it except by exercising our intuition. Then there is the next phase of knowledge of subject: knowing enough about the subject to write about it.

But that's another topic...

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