When I was new to writing I had a question that puzzles every newbie writer.
Write about what?
Anne Lamott got asked this question a lot, and her advice to her students was – anything, just write about anything.
But her students wanted her to be specific, so she said- okay write about sandwiches.
Sandwiches! what can one write about sandwiches?
But she insists and then sits with them and write about sandwiches.
Your sandwich was the centerpiece, and there were strict guidelines. It almost goes without saying that store-bought white bread was the only acceptable bread. There were no exceptions. If your mother made the white bread for your sandwich, you could only hope that no one would notice. You certainly did not brag about it, any more than you would brag about that she made headcheese. And there were only a few things that your parents could put in between the two pieces of bread. Bologna was fine, salami and unaggressive cheese were fine, peanut butter and jelly were fine if your parents understood the jelly/ jam issue.
Grape jelly was best, by far, a nice slippery comforting sugary petroleum-pocket grape. Straberry jam was second; everything else was iffy. Take rasberry, for instance…Bird by Bird
Who can write like that? That was Anne Lamott, and she can make a paragraph on sandwiches sound like a literary piece. Rather than inspiring me it frightened me even more.
So what did I write about?
Most of my early writing was about myself. My feelings, my emotions, my aspirations, my observations. That was the only topic about which I knew most and continued to learn more. I filled diaries after diaries writing about myself.
But the problem of writing about yourself is that no one else is interested in reading it.
Helen Garner says she loathes reading people’s inner talk or self-analysis in their diaries. What she likes to read and what she writes about is – who you met, what they said, what were they wearing, what were they thinking?
She used to go to interesting places to find stories. Once she was asked to do a three-part article on life, marriage, and death. She had no idea what to write about such broad topics. So she went to a birthing-center, a chapel, and a morgue and even watched a body burning in the furnace to get the first-hand experience.
That is what professional writers write about. Their experiences and their observations.
It is our experieces and our observations that make our writing come alive.
According to a new U.S. scientific research, a human brain gets bombarded with 34 gigabytes of new information every day. So much so that our mind doesn’t register most of it and discard it. But there is something, each day, which does pique our curiosity and sticks to our minds. Our job is to capture that one thing and write about it, whether it is an experience, observation or information.
Today’s post is based on the following paragraph I read while going through a collection of papers.
In Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town there’s a powerful and moving moment at the end when Emily returns from the dead to say goodbye to the things she’d taken for granted when she was alive: clock ticking, her mother’s sunflowers, freshly ironed dresses, food and coffee.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” she asks.
Realizing life is what writing is all about.