Finding Your Subject
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series,
Seattle, WA., Thursday, February 10th, 2005 and re-printed at Good Times, a Santa Cruz County News and Entertainment Weekly.
I was asked recently to speak to a college poetry class about "Finding Your Subject." All writers, but particularly younger or beginning writers, struggle with the feeling of wanting to write, but not knowing what to write about. The well-worn advice of "write what you know," "write about what's important to you," "write the poem/story you would like to read," "write about what you are afraid to write about," these are all good and valid ways to cast about and find a subject.
In my own writing, I find my subject in many different spheres of experience: from my work as a doctor in a community clinic; from my own family history; from travel and the garden; from my long term relationship with my partner of 18 years; from language itself, in word play and word games. But the more I thought about it, what seemed most true to me, and my experience as a writer, is that we don't necessarily find our subject, our subject finds us.
And your subject can find you at the most inconvenient times: Driving down the freeway in the snow, with no pen, no paper. At 2:00 am when you need to sleep because you have to work early the next day. At a birthday party for your sister, or a baptism for your niece. When the kids need a ride to the movies. When your partner wants to have "a talk." Always when you are least expecting it.
So it is important to be ready. To have prepared a welcoming place in your life, so when the subject that is out there finds you, it can come in, sit down, and stay a while. So how does one get ready? I think there are three important things you can do:
1) make a space in your life for reflection
2) do regular writing practice, as well as spur-of-the-moment note-making
3) learn to recognize the signs that a subject has found you
I'd like to talk with you a little bit about each one of these.
1) Make space in your life for reflection:
For me, it is important to have space and time for reflection in one's life. We all have such busy lives. We're plugged in to cell phones and pagers and email and voice messages. We're never really quiet. We drive with the radio on. We eat with the TV playing in the background. We don't get enough silence.
So I have chosen to work part-time, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so that I can have Tuesday and Thursday, and sometimes weekends, free for reflection, and to write. I try to cultivate periods of quiet into these days. I have nothing planned to do. I listen to music, wander the garden, walk in the park, hang out in the used bookstore, the coffee shop, go for a drive to the mountains. My partner has learned that even though it may look like I am not "doing anything," that sitting by myself in the window seat, staring out the window, simply regarding the sky, is writing. Cultivating this slowed-down, reflective, openness to the world, for whatever thoughts rise up and fall away, rise up and fall away, prepares you for being ready, so that the subject, like a timid little bird, will some days quietly light into the palm of your hand. Cultivating this slowed-down, reflective, openness to the world creates a kind of life rhythm, so that the subject that is out there, looking for you, begins to learn how to reach you, learns your patterns, your proclivities, and when is the best time to get your attention.
2) Do regular writing practice, as well as spur-of-the-moment note-making:
I try to carry paper and pen with me always; and this has been made much easier with the emergence of the PDA. This is so I can jot down quickly the whispers and phrases and glimmerings that are often the first signs that a subject is trying to find me. I keep a tiny notebook at my bedside, with a pen and a little flashlight, so if there is a voice in my head as I am falling asleep, or just as I am waking up, I can jot down what it says, because this is often an important message from the subject that is trying to find me.
For my regular writing practice, I keep a journal, and a notebook. The journal is written on my laptop, and then printed on sticky paper that I place in a hardbound book. In it I write about fairly mundane things: the weather, what happened at work yesterday, what I am doing with my partner for his birthday, etc. This journal is not usually a place where my subject finds me, though sometimes it sneaks in that way. My journal is really more a form of writing practice, getting words and sentences down onto paper, in a way that makes sense, with grammar and punctuation and order. It's a way of getting into the rhythm of writing about what is going on in my daily life a sort of official record of "what happened," but not at a very deep level. It is a way to get out all that chit-chat language in your head, that is like white noise or radio interference, preventing your subject from tuning into you.
After writing in my journal for a while, I close the laptop and turn to my notebook. This is a five subject spiral-ring, with pockets for newspaper clippings, articles, post-it notes, and other debris. I write with a pen: notes, phrases, images, lines, sometimes just single words, that I can go back to later, and mine for poems. This is where I collect some of the random jottings collected from the previous days or weeks. And put them to paper, to see if anything coheres. I do a lot of free writing and doodling in my notebook. And when the subject has found me, this is where the poem begins.
3) Learn to recognize the signs that a subject has found you:
How do you know when your subject how found you? For me it is a physical sense. An urgency. Perhaps what I imagine a woman might feel when she is about to go into labor? Or what an epileptic might feel when he is about to have a seizure? It's a EUREKA! kind of feeling an overwhelming sense that there is a voice and a rhythm and a purpose that is needing to be written, to be said. That there is a poem in me, and the writing of it just flows out. I may have no idea where the poem is headed, and then discover it as the writing proceeds. I'll fill several pages before I stop. It is usually not difficult writing. In fact, it is perhaps the easiest part of writing (revision being a very different beast, is much harder work; but that's another lecture). This "flow" phase is perhaps the most satisfying part of writing; because you have prepared yourself, and made a ready space in your life, and your subject has arrived, and you are ready to receive it.
Thank you. I'd be happy to take any comments, or questions now.
Peter Pereira is as a family physician in Seattle, and an editor at Floating Bridge Press, which he co-founded in 1994. Many of his poems arise from his medical practice, and have appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Journal of the American Medical Association, and elsewhere. Winner of the 1997 "Discovery"/The Nation Award, his books include The Lost Twin (Grey Spider 2000), and Saying the World (Copper Canyon 2003) which won the Hayden Carruth Award, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, the Triangle Publishing Award, and the PEN USA Award in Poetry.