What Do You Write About?


by Britton Gildersleeve

If you’re a writer, people often ask: what do you write about? Then they ask, how do you think of things to write about? I never know how to answer either question.

I mean, of course I know what I write about, but how do I explain that for me, almost everything I do is about writing? Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. Sometimes I even dream about writing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I don’t struggle daily. Yesterday, for instance? I spent the morning reorganizing my desk. It was—of course—a way to put off the hard hard work of writing. But it was also a way to let my mulish brain know that writing was coming, was around the corner from a clean junk drawer, that the unpacking of the bamboo organizers I ordered to rein in the chaos of my desk’s junk drawer was a prelude to order, without as well as within.

My brain was not amused.

I never understand why, even after an entire lifetime spent writing—teaching it, doing it, reading it, learning it, eating sleeping and breathing it—it remains so darn hard. I can create a meal from what’s in the pantry pretty regularly (even though years ago I set the kitchen on fire while trying to make donuts). In only a few months I can put together a mixed border that stuns landscape folks, much of it from seed, even though I have watched gardens die in several countries. Friends and family tell me those things are all difficult, as well. But NOT as difficult as writing, I assure you.

If I start with a topic (let’s say, poetry), I find myself stricken mute. Or, worse, brimming with clichés. Without a topic, I organize my desk. I water the orchids. I even clip the cat’s claws! All to avoid the empty screen/page/head.

Here’s where years of listening to “real” writers (like those I’ve met and read through my longtime association with Nimrod) helps.


It’s not easy for anyone to write, it turns out. It’s WORK. In caps, and maybe bold and italics, as well. Just because reading is delicious doesn’t mean writing is. It’s the difference between hauling composted manure to the garden and smelling the flowers that bloom months later. It’s like running, which I did for years, until my knees informed me they were too old for it: the beauty of writing is most often in the afterglow, not the moment of creative perspiration.

But unlike running, or gardening, or even cooking, writing requires an audience at some point. Or else you’re not—at least not to a culture insistent on “authorship”—a “real” writer. I don’t believe that. Neither, by the way, do most “real” writers. They’re well aware that for even the best, luck is often involved in publication. And here’s where what you write about (you thought I was just rambling, didn’t you?) is critical:

If it’s going to interest other folks, it needs to interest you. Passionately interest you.

I’m thinking of Nimrod writers who have written about idiosyncratic (re: not traditional) subjects. B.H. “Pete” Fairchild and his father’s machine shop. Henry Taylor and the gaits of horses. Natasha Trethewey and her sonnets in the voice of a black soldier in the Civil War. Denise Levertov—one of my favorite poets—who spent years writing about the landscapes she could see from her home. Philip Levine’s working-class Americans, Lucille Clifton’s black women. More than write what you know, these poets illustrate clearly the value of writing what you’re passionate about. A recent Nimrod judge—Robin Coste Lewis—turned the ekphrastic poem on its head, using the figures of black women from centuries of art to examine “race and Western art.” The results of each of these writers’ work is stunning and deconstructs any idea that there are fixed tropes we should write about.

So back to what I write about … Right now? I write about this fascinating new pastorale outside my windows. I write about loss, and aging, and other “traditional” topics. I also write about the ubiquitous roadkill on rural roads (“once there was a small bear”), the blue jay brothers hogging the bird feeders, and the way rain is so very different in the mountains than it is in the plains. And thanks to all the writers before me, I don’t feel guilty. Now, if I can just figure out a way to explain that more simply!

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.


The W’s: Work and Why We Write (and Other Impossible Subjects)

by Francine Ringold

In 2004, Nimrod International Journal published an issue entitled Fabulae! What Work Is. The issue included poems and stories about bricklaying, science, planting, cooking—the music of the hammer and the lure of the coal mine. The performance script that emerged from the issue relating physical work and literature was presented at the meeting room of the Carpenter’s Union 205, among other places. The script further developed the theme, incorporating excerpts of poems and stories from carpenter-poet Vachel Lindsey; airplane factory worker and poet Richard Hugo; doctors, like William Carlos Williams, who wrote a poem a day while in medical school; and insurance salesmen, like Wallace Stevens. There was work from Richard Eberhart, who sold Johnson’s Wax door to door; from farmers, like Robert Frost; from B.H. (Pete) Fairchild’s book of poems The Art of the Lathe; from mothers, like Lucille Clifton, who worked several physical labor jobs simultaneously; and, of course, from Philip Levine, whose What Work Is brings to life blue-collar work in Detroit, where he grew up. All these and many more, including prose writers demonstrate the dynamic link between the written word and physical labor. It is easy to say these writers are workers.

But what of the writers who never met a machine, washtub, or currycomb? Do they work? Can we call it work, that high-precision mental labor of writing? Or is it all inspiration, as so many people think—especially those we meet at cocktail parties? Is writing just the prophetic, the vatic voice bursting forth? And if it is work, hard work, why do we do it? Why do we write a poem, a story, a memoir?

It makes one tremble, trying to sum up a subject everyone who’s ever taken pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or arrowhead to stone has wrestled with. But I am stuck with my subject and awed by it, just as awed as I am by the passion of my fellow writers, by the commitment to the difficult and obsessive task we have embraced.

So, I’ll start with the obvious: the job we writers do is not easy; it is not often financially rewarding. It is seldom starlit. It is often disheartening—if not plain painful. While writing we often break a sweat, our muscles ache, our metabolism races. In other words, we are at work, and, as Pulitzer Prize-winner Stanley Kunitz said, “a poem without the body in it lies dead on the page.”

All this mental and physical effort! Why do we do it? Are we all masochists? Surely we must love our chosen task; surely it brings us joy as well as pain. Indeed—and I believe part of that joy is right there in the 3 W’s: Who, When, Where. In composition class we are asked to enunciate these 3 W’s before we write. Professional and would-be professional writers acknowledge that we usually discover the who and the when and the where as we write the first draft—and perhaps even the second or third.

We write and read to discover Who we are, to balance the risk of reaching out into the unknown by finding ourselves. In that process of discovery, we are, of course, writing to unburden our minds and hearts just as we read to embrace the stories and the burden of others.

We write to create the moments When we are more than we are in our everyday lives.

We write and read to discover Where we are, to plant our feet in the land of our ideas and the homebase of relationships and the very earth we need to stand on. Additionally, and ironically, we write in order to plant ourselves firmly in our dream space. And this brings us “joy” . . . and this makes us fall in love with the process.

Though our search is not as calculated as it sounds, though often we do our best work when we don’t know what we are doing, even when we experience the shock of inspiration, of momentarily breathing in the essence of what is out there—there is also and always the search to go deeper. And in that search and struggle to clarify, to find the exact words, sounds, rhythms, and to set down what we breathe in, what we think, what we feel—we acquire technique. Then, as Mark Shorer insisted, technique becomes discovery.

And so we not only write—we read and encourage reading; we not only write—we re-think and re-write, and develop technique. We Wright, employing another W—to wright, like wheel-wright and ploughwright and playwright.

It is a risky process, it is work, but it is worth it, for above all, we write not only to discover but because in that process of discovery we breathe in new, fresh air. That, I suppose, is the real meaning of inspiration, the power of the breath that underlies all work and play (which in the best scenario is the same thing). But to go on:

We write and read to breathe, to discover and to record not only what is new, but the past, history (his-story and her-story), to record past lives and the spirit of a time and place.

We also write to refresh history, to make it new, for the past is also subject to change. Each generation looks at the past from a new angle, in the light of new discoveries: a letter once buried; a scientific finding; eyewitnesses coming forward—to capture, as a renowned historian said, the “fly in the inkwell.”

We write to exercise and develop skills of enunciation of the past and present but also to expand our imaginations, to extend the gesture, without which relationships among disciplines—science, business, medicine, law—as well as relationships among people falter and fade.

We read and write because we have a dream, a need, something we must say, and we are in love with people and places and emboldened to reach out for the words, their power, rhythm, sound, and sense, the words that may approximate in some small way—but never convey entirely—the wonder that is out there.

We write and read to preserve our dream space as well as to acknowledge our responsibility space. (I believe I read that somewhere; it is not my original concept.) And yes and yes and yes . . . it is true; we already do so much that acknowledges that “responsibility” space, we responsible ones, we who “respond” to family and friends and state and country, but also to principle and history and tradition.

However, we remind ourselves that despite Shelley and others, creative writers are not hierophants, are not prophets nor didactic teachers nor systematic philosophers. That is our strength. We don’t have to be.

Yes, we do at times engage the mystery; a poem or story comes to us as if from nowhere. But, at the same time, we do often come to a moment of clarity. And then all we have to do is re-write, share, give the gift of poem or story or painting or O-ring . . . offer, extend the gesture . . . no strings attached. Take it or leave it.

It is a risky process, it is work, but it is worth it.

That is why, as Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” You practice your craft, you exercise until you tap into the mysterious center of things . . . what playwright Pirandello called “the secret room where dreams prowl,” where the Where and the When and the Who are.

In October, 1973, in a letter in which she accepted a position on the Advisory Board of Nimrod, Katherine Anne Porter, famous short story writer, novelist, and teacher, wrote: “Practice an art for love and the happiness of your life—you will find it outlasts almost everything but breath!” And then she added a line from Pascal: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”

I guess it boils down to that . . . to the heart and the love of craft and words and speaking in a way that will outlast even breath. For the writing and reading of that writing are there to be discovered again and again . . . to make us new, to preserve the old, to expand life, giving us who we are, where we are, and those precious moments when we are more than we are in our everyday lives.

But all of you know that. . . .

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.