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So, What Do You Write About?

It happens here, too, at a party among tenured professors. The red wine loosens me up and I carry a small plate with an assortment of delectable cheese slices and crackers of various shapes, through the narrow spaces between chatting groups. But, inevitably, we sit to eat at a circular table too wide to foster easy conversation in the noisy room and after platitudes have been perfunctorily exchanged, the question comes: “So, what do you write about?”

I’ve never known how to satisfactorily answer that question, so I’m constantly searching for explanations that satisfy the inquisitors. What a question! How does one answer? I’ve often thought of saying “Sports.” I don’t even like sports, but it’s easy enough. Or I could be wryly discursive and say, “Golden retrievers, the number six, Caravaggio, and New England cemeteries at dusk,” which wouldn’t be entirely untrue. I mean, I don’t actively not write about those things, so it’s possible I might soon produce a poem or story about any or all of these subjects.

I wonder, Why can’t I just be a writer? Why do I have to be “about” something, commit myself to a defining subject? Well, because the writer is a strange two-headed creature who makes little sense to those who don’t write and don’t closely know anybody who writes. To be adequately sized up, to be understood, mythical creature, writer, you must be removed from your seemingly imperceptible, extraterrestrial context of “writer” and defined in relationship to something that is of this world.

So, if in response to that perplexing question you answer “baseball,” you cease to be a writer and can be neatly categorized as a baseball fan–who sometimes writes about baseball. But you’re not a writer, because you can’t possibly be interested in a variety of things; you can’t possibly take pleasure in analysis, reflection, and the musicality of words. And even if you do, that’s no reason to do anything. What’s that pay, anyway?

While the romantic artist in me has the urge to respond, “Hey man, why do you need to make sense of everything? Why can’t you just let it be, man? Let it be, like the wind through the trees, or puppies playing in a field, man!” But, then, if I were to follow that advice, would I write? I understand the impulse to clarify; every poem, story, or essay I write is, without my consciously knowing it, an attempt to crystallize some feeling, idea, or loose agglomeration of seemingly related ideas, thereby making sense of something that is beautiful or ugly or miraculous or all these things and more. Or, having failed to make sense of it, maybe I have adequately represented it, and other minds can set to work decoding it. By capturing it, I have somehow achieved emotional resolution about a particular thing or clarified and intensified my feeling about it, my appreciation for it.

I sat and analyzed it long enough, turned it in my palm, held it under various lights, evaluated it from different angles and distances and studied it in relationship to other objects, and here it is, for you to see, and isn’t it fascinating that we can have such an exchange and maybe understand each other a little better? What do I write about? The truth is: everything. But that’s an unsatisfying answer to the inquisitor and to me. It seems somehow diluted, like nothing is of particular importance.

But I mean it: everything interests and fascinates me–the Roman Empire, apple picking in autumn, the feeling of grocery shopping twenty minutes before the market closes, the psychology of sensation and perception, the kaleidoscopic patterns of spots nature made on leaves, and the Second Industrial Revolution. And, if asked the virtues and benefits of writing, or, in other words, why do I expend time and energy doing something that is unlikely to reap rewards of finance and prestige, I will say that it’s different for everybody, but in my case, as an observant introvert, writing has provided for me a purpose, a vehicle through which to enter the world. The adolescent appeal in holing up is lost, because everything is happening out there, everything that can go in a poem, story, or essay.

Writing made me realize that everything is important and has beauty that can be brought out by our experiencing it with child-like wonderment, because it is a wonder that any of this exists. That blase attitude about life, and the cynicism and indifference characteristic of this society at this part of our century, like everything is so yesterday, so inconsequential, so insignificant, is lost on me.

Inexperienced writers want to know, “Where do you get ideas? How do you get inspiration?” First, you learn to experience unhindered wonderment by contemplating the small stuff. You slow yourgoing going going, stop for a moment, and think, “Wow! I’m really here. What is all this?” You demonstrate interest not only in things that lead to money or prestige or recognition, things somehow affect your day, but things that provide an emotional experience, no matter how small. You have to love the world slightly more than you love writing.

You notice the young man who’s sitting lotus on the sidewalk, weeping and rocking and holding up a cardboard sign that tells you he was just diagnosed with HIV and needs help and has no idea what to do. You stop and experience that, and allow your world to change a little, knowing that this young man has a life and his life is forever changed, and that there are many others like him. You pay him and others respect through deep awareness, by adjusting your perspective to include those whose sufferings make you uncomfortable, and by doing what you can, even if it means writing a little story that few, if any, will ever read.

One of my favorite short story writers, Andre Dubus, expressed it better than I know how: “I have never known anybody as deeply as I know a character who comes to me through the work of writing a story, because I have never been able to feel absolutely what another human being is feeling. The perception of a character in a story written with compassion is, for both the reader and the writer, a perception closer to divine than human.” Writing, for me, facilitates that process of connection, involvement and feeling, and so long as it continues to do that, that’s what my writing is about.

Brian Le Lay‘s first full-length book of poems, Don’t Bury Me in New Jersey, is available from Electric Windmill Books. His second book, Smile for the Customers, is forthcoming from Brass Seahorse Books. Recent poems have appeared in Hobo Pancakes, The Rusty Nail, and Gutter Eloquence. He blogs at