This is a guest post by Adele Annesi.
No matter what genre you write in or want to write in the usual advice is to write what you know. But sooner or later every writer wonders, what could I possibly know that’s worth writing about? What this question really translates to is, “What can I write about that others will be interested in reading?”
What we’re doing here isn’t asking a question, although the words are framed that way. What we’re doing even before we put words on the page is airing our greatest fear—writing or perhaps otherwise—that we have no story worth telling, or worse, no human experience worth someone else’s time to read. The truth is that everyone has a story worth telling—the one interests you, the writer.
Given the hardships of today’s world, it sounds supremely self-centered to use as your main selection criterion a topic that’s of interest to you. The paradox, however, is that this one of the few places where a little self-centeredness works in favor of others—in this case, the audience, the very people the writer hopes to engage. The reason is that if an idea or a story isn’t interesting to you, you won’t be able to write it well enough for it to be of interest to others. So the real question is what moves the human heart, your human heart?
This is the theme of Unless It Moves the Human Heart, a book on the craft and art of writing by playwright and Time magazine essayist Roger Rosenblatt, also a professor of English and writing at Stony Brook University. The main point of the book, an overview of Rosenblatt’s Writing Everything course, is summed up in the last chapter. “You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does.” We humans are not meant to be independent but interdependent.
If we can say then that each person (thus each writer) has inherent dignity in merely being human, then our worry over the value of our experience, even our lives, is unfounded. The caveat, however, is that if you aim for the heart, you merely tug the heartstrings. Instead, aim for a topic of interest, real interest, to you, and approach it with integrity and respect and the time and due diligence required to convey them.
This brings us back, not to our original query, but to the one that immediately follows. Okay, if I have something to write about, how do I figure out what that is? As a professor of English and writing, I often ask students what they’re thinking about, what their goals are, what concerns they have. This encourages them, gives them permission even, to take the time to think about what they’ve been thinking about, even worrying about. One common assignment is to write a narrative essay about a life-changing person or event. But this is just the beginning of the journey to meaningful story. Only on the second draft, at least, do we writers discover what we really want to say about how that person or experience altered our lives to the degree that they will never be the same. It’s on that second or later draft where the story’s real focus is found, and it’s this discovery process that enables us to re-envision the work to bring it the depth it deserves.
It’s when we read our stories for their real meaning, pleasant or not, that we discover what we want to say, need to say, fear saying, even as we labor to write as though the reader needs us, because he does, she does. As Rosenblatt concludes, “Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing—word after word after word.”
Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. A co-founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference, Adele has published work in various journals, including 34th Parallel, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Fringe Blog, Midway Journal, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly,and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her work has also been anthologized for Chatter House Press and Fairfield University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. Her essay on Italian citizenship is part of the Clarion Award-winning Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers,and her flash fiction has been adapted for the stage. A professor of English and writing, Adele regularly posts for Word for Words, her editing blog for writers.