Shaun Levin

The Subject Matter that Is Your Life

In Writing, Writing Exercises on June 3, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Take stock. Make a list of all the things you have to write about. Keep a little notebook of these subjects, these moments, these memories, these experiences, these people. Make a list of all your cousins, the things you remember doing with them, things people told you about them. Make a list of all the jobs you’ve had, even if it was only for a few hours, that job you walked out of pretty much immediately. The job you’ve had for twenty years. Make a list of your aunts and uncles. All the houses you’ve lived in, the people you’ve lived with. Make a list of everyone you’ve had sex with, even if just for a few minutes, even if just the one. Make a list of all the celebrities you fancy. All the movies you love and would want to see again, and the books. Make a list of all the writers you’d like to be. To meet. To love. Make a list of all the things you know, and the things you know how to do. Realise that you carry around with you a vast resource, a bottomless treasure chest. You never have to worry about not having something to write about. The only thing you need to worry about is the voice that tells you what you should be writing about, and what you should be writing about, it says, is something that has nothing to do with your life. If you want to write fiction, the mean voice says, you have to go as far away as possible from your experience. Nonsense. That is the voice that doesn’t want you to tell the story that means the most to you, the story that will challenge you and offer the most surprises and satisfaction. Make a list of all the windows you’ve looked out of, all the cakes you’ve baked, and eaten, all the strangers you’ve spoken to on a train, even if it’s just one, write about her. All this is your resource for fiction, too. Write about yourself, write about what you know, write to discover what you don’t know in the things you think you know. Don’t ignore the subject matter that is your life.

Fiction is make-believe, it’s pretending, it’s inventing characters and situations. Make a list of the places you’d like to go to. Research them and write about them as if you’ve been there. Make a list of the experiences you’ve never had and pick the ones that intrigue you, the ones you hope you’ll never have and the ones that you want to have and research them, interview people who’ve had them, then write about them as if they’re yours. Write about torture and intimate contentment and walking barefoot for miles and crossing oceans on sea-liners and surviving a war and famine and tea at the Ritz. You don’t have to go there to know there, though you will have to find a place in you that has been there, that has experienced something that is an echo of the experience you want to write about, no matter how much it might seem alien to your world. And that, too, is part of the soul work.

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