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.