Why do you write what you write?

January 22, 2011 — 2 Comments

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write my previous post about why I write. I knew I’d disagree with myself immediately and/or have a million things to add. So far I just have a couple things to add, and I’ll do so under the subquestion: Why do you write what you write?

Because another reason I write is that certain subjects, characters, images, and ideas compel me to write them. Just like certain books compel me to read them and certain music compels me to crank up the volume and certain clothes compel me to pay too much for them.

The fact is, I can carry along on a particular day with no thoughts whatsoever about writing. No intentions to write, no desire to write, not even any guilt about not writing. When all of a sudden I’ll see something or Google something or hear something that commands me to STOP: Achtung, baby.

In which Cortázar is plagued by the wrong subject.

Julio Cortázar describes this phenomena in “Some Aspects of the Short Story.” [I don’t have my copy with me, so I’m going to paraphrase for now and will update with actual quotes later.] First he says that when people find out he’s a writer they want to impose their stories on him. Have they ever got a great story! But Cortázar says that it doesn’t matter how great the story; you can’t impose a subject on a writer. Writers will be drawn to certain subjects – no matter how “significant” – and only those subjects will resonate for the writer.

In which Cortázar finds his subject.

I really like this section of Cortázar’s discussion because I’ve known a few people with dramatic life stories, and they imply in various ways that someone (like me) should write them. But even if I’m interested in hearing their stories, I’m not interested in writing them. I would not do it the way they would want, and I wouldn’t be able to do it the way I would want.

The passage also resonates for me because of the way I’ve Ouija’d*  my way into my subjects and settings. I was visiting a friend in Berlin for the first time, and we decide to spend a couple days in Prague. I found Berlin endlessly complex and fascinating, and Prague struck me as, well, very, very pretty. Nonetheless, when I returned from that trip I began to write about Prague. And I have been writing about and returning to it ever since. Maybe I needed to figure out what was complex and fascinating about Prague…

The same thing happened with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I’d read a bit about Wright and enjoyed the novel Loving Frank, about one of his relationships, but that was about it. And when my family took a weekend trip to Ohiopyle, PA on the way home from NJ a couple summers ago, I was like, “Oh cool, there’s that waterfall house by FLW nearby.” The minute I walked in, I got all tingly (okay: choked up, like I might cry), and I knew I’d have to write about it. I’d also been watching a lot of Hitchcock, which was somehow related to knowing that it would have to be the setting for a failing relationship. Little did I know, it already had been. That became part of my pursuit as well.

Even after spending a couple days in Copenhagen, the only thing I’ve written about was a petite woman who dressed in an all white tuxedo and stood on an overturned bucket, performing as a “living statue” – standing perfectly still until she got your attention, at which point she would flip her hat in the air or honk a bicycle horn. (That said, the essay”Copenhagen Chiaroscuro” turned into a piece about my sister, whom I was traveling with, and about various shades of love. The statue woman was the central image and imagining.)

I suppose all artists have these mystical moments when we find – or are found by – our subject. And we know: we have to write.

*To Oiuja: verb. 1. To discover one’s subject matter or to solve a problem in one’s manuscript through a mystical but potentially dubious process. 2. Any act that feels more or less like putting one’s fingertips to a plastic planchette and wondering whether you or some spirit is actually doing the moving.

[Note: Cortázar’s comments about subject matter are similar to his insights about favorite short stories, which I talked about here.]

2 responses to Why do you write what you write?


    I found Prague (where I spent more than a week) very interesting. It probably helped that I had a local guide sharing his personal memories.
    One person on the tour asked, with the particular day being a national holiday for the Czechs, why there was not a single Czech flag to be seen? The answer: during the communist occupation, Czechs were required to hang the soviet flag alongside the Czech flag as a symbol of submission and compliance to the communist rule. Flying the Czech flag alone on a national holiday would result in your family, friends, neighbors, business customers, kid’s playmates and so on, being pressured, and warned not to associate with you… lest they receive the same treatment. Decades later the Czech people still associate flag flying with oppression, and do not use it to show national pride


    That’s a great story about Prague and Czech flags. Thanks for sharing. Now that you mention it, it does seem that I saw many more Slovakian flags in Bratislava than Czech flags in Prague. Somewhat tangentially, the Norwegians are crazy about flag-flying, which seems related to Norway being called the current “happiest” country.

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