My son is a fabulous story teller – he always has been, even before he could talk intelligbly. He’d stand proudly in the midst of family circle, draw himself to a full 30 inches, and pontificate for 10 minutes in complete gibberish. We all attempted to laugh or looked dismayed in the appropriate places, but mostly we just wanted to yell “What in the world are you trying to say?”
As he grew and developed a command of the language, his stories began to take on familiar themes – there were usually characters doing something stupid and being saved by other ultra smart characters. Plenty of explosions and car chases were involved. The stories got more complex as he aged, yet the basic themes remained the same. He found his line.
I think once you’ve found your voice, your theme, your preoccupation, then your writing life becomes a lot simpler. You begin to focus your vision of the world through that lens, and pretty soon you start relating everything you see and everything that happens to you in terms of that focal point. There’s an old adage every writer is familiar with – write what you know. I’d take that a step further and say write what you care about.
I’m an only child. I’m married to an only child, the mother of an only child, and the daughter of an only child. Does it surprise you that my writing is preoccupied with family relationships? It’s not really even a conscious decision – no matter what kind of idea for a story or essay I come up with, somehow family relationships are involved. I’ve completed NaNoWriMo twice, and both novels involve parent/child relationships and the emotional legacies we pass on to our children. I’m working on a short story now that involves a young man who keeps sabotaging his love life because of an unhealthy obsession with his deceased mother’s little dog (which of course is just a cover for an unhealthy obsession with his mother!)
Perhaps it sounds limiting, to have this recurring theme for your work. But if you look carefully at the work of most writers and artists, you’ll notice a similar constancy of thought. Jane Austen was certainly successful in her portraits of young women discovering life and love in the 19th century. Jhumpa Lahiri has done quite well exploring the lives of second generation Indian immigrants, navigating the no man’s land between the traditional values of their parents and modern American culture.
And Monet did allright with those water lilies, didn’t he?
The real trick lies in having the skill to develop your material in new, interesting directions. Certainly I could write fantasy novels, historical novel, or mysteries and still retain the common thread of exploring family relationships and dynamics. The things I care about.
Sometimes writing about these preoccupations helps make sense of them in a way ordinary thinking cannot. Jhumpa Lahiri said that, in writing about the two worlds she grew up in she “tried to weave them together in some combination that was orderly on the page in a way that it isn’t always in life.”
So how do you find your material? Carolyn See, author of Making a Literary Life, asks her students “What’s your inner voice talking about these days?” What are you thinking about when you’re in the shower, or driving your car, on the treadmill at the gym? If you’ve become accustomed to tuning it out, because it’s constant muttering drives you mad, then perhaps its time to tune it back in. Turn up the volume even.
What do you catch yourself thinking about? What experiences and relationships in your life are the most meaningful? What catches your attention when you’re out and about? These are the things you’re going to know, the things you’re going to care about, and that knowledge and caring will resonate in your writing.
This is where you’ll find your line.
How about you? Have you found your line yet? Do you think you have one? How do you go about expressing it?