Most writers are concerned with the wrong thing. They have a simple, misguided belief that holds them back from creating anything of real value. They mistakenly believe that what they write about is more important than how they write.
They’re worried about this, even fixate on it. Fretting and obsessing, they waste oodles of time and energy on something that doesn’t matter. These people are so concerned with what to write about (because of public opinion or market demand) that they neglect the craft itself. And they miss the boat.
Writing isn’t about picking the right topic; it’s about finding the right voice (tweet-worthy, no?). What matters, what readers really resonate with, isn’t so much what you say, but how.
“What’s it about?”
Yesterday, I spoke with a group of authors, and one of them asked me, “What should I be blogging about?”
I replied with a question: “If we were to get together for coffee, what would we talk about?” She then proceeded to tell me her life’s story — a harrowing journey through fear and shame to self actualization. It was beautiful.
As we considered her experiences, we concluded that what made her story interesting wasn’t any particular incident. Rather, it was the universality of emotions: worry, shame, guilt, fear, passion.
She wasn’t describing the challenges of becoming an author. She was describing what it was like to be human.
This is what good writing does
Writing — good writing, that is — transcends its setting and subject. It speaks to universal truths and core values, how we see the world and what we really believe about it. Where something happens (or even what happens) is not as significant as how. For example:
- Les Miserables isn’t about 19th-century France; it’s about justice and grace.
- Gone with the Wind isn’t about the Civil War or living in the South. It’s about the conflict of love and selfishness.
- Jurassic Park isn’t about dinosaurs living in Costa Rica. It’s about the dignity of all life and the limitations of science.
Do you see? The subject of a story (a child with an alcoholic father) is far less interesting than the theme (forgiveness). My friend Marion taught me that.
If you can find a theme — not a subject or a context — in your writing that connects with a core human emotion, you will never run out of good things to write. You can jump genres, even change styles, and your readers won’t care. Because they’re following you, paying attention to your voice more than your writing topic.
This is why we read The Catcher in the Rye every year or pull out our favorite Jane Austen novel. It’s why we love Hemingway and gravitate towards Dickinson. We read these authors not for their subjects, but for their voices. Their worldview.
Finding a worldview
Everyone has one. A paradigm. A perspective. A code of ethics. It’s how we all live our lives, whether we realize it or not. This is what sets a person’s voice apart from the rest of the noise vying for our attention: not what they say, but how they say it.
I hate to be the realist here, but look: There is no subject you could write about, no niche you could target, that hasn’t been reached before. So for crying out loud, stop trying to be so clever and original (it’s not working).
Instead, focus on the how, the worldview of what you write. What about the way you see the world is different? What would resonate with some and cause others to disagree? Write that.
Write something that’s worth fighting over. Because that’s how you change things. That’s how you create art.
Do you worry more about what to write about than how you’re writing it? Share in the comments.