How do you choose your writing subject?

The craft of creative writing, both fiction and non-fiction, demands that we immerse ourselves in the world in which we live.

In order for our writing to be deep, broad, and wide, our lives must go there first. It also demands that the writer take a flight of imagination. It’s that feeling of lift-off, when our pulse races and colour floods to our cheeks. It’s the ‘aha’ moment of the haiku poets. It’s the feeling of flow rising up through the body and on to the page. It’s addictive. It’s what all writers yearn to contact.

We can simplistically assume that nature-writers give more weight to the first skill, and that writers of fantasy fiction, for example, make more use of the second. However, in successful creative writing, the first cannot exist without the second. How can you take off, if there’s no ground to launch from?

For some writers, observing life doesn’t come easily.

As they are happy to remind me, attending to the minutiae of life is exactly what they were trying to get away from when they took up writing! Others writers work well on the ground, but lack the vitality and flight. Their passion is for diving deep with the present moment experience. They sometimes fear letting go.

If you are one of those who want to yawn and put your head down on the clean white page at the thought of writing about the every day world, the winner of the Wild Words Competition 2014 might be of particular interest to you.

In her winning poem What a Leopard Slug Knows’, Julie Stamp shows us that it’s not that life is interesting per se, but that we choose to make it interesting by giving it kind attention. As writers, how we treat a subject is more important than our initial choice of subject.


It was a nature documentary that opened Julie’s eyes to the wonders of Limax maximus: the Leopard Slug. Having researched further, assimilated and pondered on the facts, she felt ‘compelled’ to write a poem. She has this to say on the subject of making the mundane interesting:

Take time to scratch beneath the surface, to investigate those aspects of nature which are not fully understood, and even the most maligned and humble creatures can be admired and appreciated for what they are and what they contribute to our world.

And this was her personal process around the meeting of observation and imagination:

It was important to write from the slugs’ point of view and that its voice should reflect its extraordinariness….The more I visualised this world, the more I was able to make the transition between the images in the documentary and the vision in my head.

When we decide to make contact with a subject that repels or bores us, and translate that into contact between pen (or keys) and page, we stand steady in the face of our fears. We expand our comfort zone, and our world.

And as to boredom, and the falling asleep on the desk thing, well, I would suggest that these are sometimes unconscious defences. Against what? Against being truly in relationship with life and the vulnerability that comes with that. 

Evolving words

This summer I spoke a lot about storytelling as a fundamental tool for helping the human animal to survive and thrive.

In researching this idea further for the online course, I discovered all sorts of fascinating facts that made animals seem somehow more human, or rather, made humans seem rather more animal. Did you know that animals communicate symbolically? Bees pass on information to their comrades about the distance, difficulty and value of potential food sources, through gestures contained in a dance. Did you know that animals pretend? Young chimpanzees will take care of logs and other objects as if they were babies. And did you know that we are not the only species that dream? Neuroscience has found that zebra finches seem to practice singing specific songs in their sleep. The same neurons light up in their brains, as when they are awake and singing out loud.

Through Wild Words I present a view of written language as a fluid animal.

Teaching at Swanwick Writer’s Summer School last month, I therefore very much appreciated linguistics expert David Crystal’s approach to language. He emphasises,

…the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings

It’s an optimistic view, which, as in Wild Words work, demonstrates how human beings expand into their potential, rather than reduces their behaviours to ‘problems’. This is especially evident when you read his defence of the language used in texting, as reported in The Guardian

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong….There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

We need to remain alert to that voices (internal as well as external) that heap negativity upon the way we function. In the same way that texting is not the death-knell of the English language, the problems on your writing page are not a catastrophe for your career as a writer.

They are evidence of your body-mind trying things out, in order to find the best way through. We need to support, rather than undermine that process. When we make those strategies into the enemy, we only strengthen their hold.

There’s a whole world of communication that goes on between non-human animals.

Write piece of prose or poetry in which you take the voice of an animal. Use first person point-of-view to tell the reader about the life of your chosen animal, its hopes and dreams.