Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What should I write about?

I remember being a young would-be writer in my twenties thinking, Aren't all the topics taken?  Haven't all the great stories been told?  Perhaps it was the result of being an English major and feeling hopelessly inadequate.

Of course, I gradually learned that, with knowledge doubling every few years and the range of information seemingly infinite, there is no dearth of material to write about, of people to quote or comment on, of experiences that can be turned into stories.

In my writing workshop recently, a student submitted a piece on visiting a laundromat (launderette) for the first time.  She assumed that everyone in America was like her: able to afford their own washer and dryer. But, facing a heavy, stained blanket, she decided that a larger washing machine was needed. She felt out of place at first, unsure what to do.

What she observed was a revealing cross-section of society: of people who avoided her gaze; they did not want to be seen publicly doing private things (folding their underwear).  She began to wonder what led a twelve-year-old boy to sort, wash, dry, and fold the family's laundry. She wondered about class distinctions, the haves vs. the have-nots.

The result was a subtle narrative that resembled a short story but was, in fact, non-fiction: it had happened to her. Since it was brief, I suggested it be revised and submitted as flash non-fiction. I had recently read about Dinty W. Moore, who edits Brevity, an online journal devoted to flash non-fiction and who has written widely on this new genre.

I hope my student's work is published there or elsewhere; if not, it showed us that concerns and fears (writer's block) about being original are unwarranted if we just look around at our daily life-world: there are stories everywhere. We don't have to create them from scratch or wait for divine inspiration.

This, I hope, is encouraging to anyone who resembles my younger self many years ago or anyone who is stuck with "what will I write?"  After all, it's the approach, the angle and style that we take to the ordinary that can make it extraordinary. What is personal is often universal (maybe always).

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