"But I don't want to write about X."
I understand this complaint, I do. I've been there. Twice, during my MFA program, two different faculty members insisted I write about topics I had rather not. The assignments annoyed me. I had no time to waste and wanted to stick to my own writing agenda. But I had also made a commitment to myself at the start of the program, to try anything, to say yes, to remain open to creative possibilities.
One assignment was to write an essay about the "danger of memory." I wanted to vomit. Not only was I not interested, I found myself strongly resisting. At the time, I was working on memoir pieces rooted in my childhood and far from viewing memory as dangerous, I thought of it as my ally. Yet, I reasoned this mentor must have a reason. I wrote the piece, which was an unwieldy mess at first, but then, as I revised and researched and rewrote, a strange thing happened. Something in the memoir pieces I thought of as my "real" work, began to shift. Something about the process of writing that piece had moved the rest of my work to a different, and better, place. I was connecting to my own memories in a different, more complex and much more self-aware way.
The other time, a faculty member who had been offering critique on several of my pieces, circled a reference, in each of four pieces, to a relationship in my life which up to that point I was not writing about, and had no plans to ever write about. "This," she said, "is what you are avoiding. Write about it."
I growled inwardly and on the one hand felt she was wasting my time on something insignificant, but on a deeper level I must have known that she'd hit the one nerve I was trying – obviously awkwardly – to protect. Later, after I'd written the long and surprisingly satisfying essay, she explained: Always go where you are resisting. Write what you are avoiding. Write what you don't want to write about. Write what scares you. When you think, "oh I can never write about that," that's what you need to write. There's a reason you have those feelings.
Fast forward a few years. A writer I was coaching, who I'll call Jim, keeps turning out lovely essays about various aspects of his life as a husband, father, son and friend. Each one has publication potential and he works hard on them, but somewhere in the revision process, he always loses interest and sets the piece aside. After about four of these pieces, I notice something. In each, whether it seems connected or not, there is always a line or two, often buried and mostly as an aside, about how, years before, as a new father, he was working in a highly-paid position at a prestigious company, exactly the sort of job his Ivy-league business school education has prepared him for, yet it had made him profoundly unhappy.
Finally, I gave him an assignment: Write about that job and how it sapped your soul and affected your family and how and why you eventually got out. He resisted, strongly. He was done thinking about that period of his life. He had moved on. It had taken a huge emotional toll to break free. He had a great job now, a balanced life. He didn't want to go there.
Go there, I advised. He did. Not overnight and not happily at first. Eventually though, Jim began to produce a series of pieces around this topic, pieces that were so much more nuanced and energetic than his previous work that he was able to place one in his alumni magazine, one on a men's website, and another in an essay collection.
Now, let me be clear. I take no credit for Jim's success. Eventually someone else would have given him the same advice. Or he may have noticed it himself. He'd have gotten around to it at some point, whether out of frustration or curiosity, or an annoying urge to scratch some vague but persistent itch.
Or, maybe not. Maybe what we all need is someone to say, "Hey, how come you aren't writing about…."
Take a look at your work. What keeps showing up? What often seems to be missing? What do you tend to skip over because you just can't quite figure out how to deal with it on the page? What are you dead set against writing about?
When I say one can grow as a writer by writing about what one is avoiding on the page, I don't always mean that you must write about some painful topic you'd be happier leaving alone. Maybe you are funny in short bursts but avoid (or just won't let yourself) try an entire humor piece. Perhaps you unconsciously keep sneaking in small references to a favorite deceased relative, when what you may truly be itching to do is write about how much she influenced you or why you miss her. Or have you made a conscious decision to never write about X? Hmm.
I have a favorite saying which I believe stems from Confucius: What you resist, persists.
Sometimes the more we avoid writing about something, the more it haunts our work. We avoid writing about certain topics or in certain ways for a number of reasons. Fear that it may lead nowhere. Fear that it may lead somewhere we're not sure we want to go. Habit. Feeling inadequate to the task. Being uncertain about where or how to begin. Thinking it's not really all that interesting. Knowing it's so complicated, if we start, we may never have the time or energy to write about anything else.
And we may be right, about any or all of these reasons. Or, we may be ducking a rich source of material. Chances are good that if someone else notices something, especially if it's a repeated quirk, there's something there worth exploring on the page.
Here's the thing. It might not work out. But what if it does?
The first two installments of the Stuff My (Writing) Students Say series are here.