On What to Write



I have one Instagram account and I’ve been thinking about making another one just for photographs of the 12 acres on which we live. There is so much richness in even just a single acre—in even a few square feet—that it would be cheating, because even if I tried, I would never be able to take the same picture twice. Nature is a vast collection of variables. Nature is change.

Nothing is ever the same from moment to moment, and each moment tells a story. Light, temperature, season, weather. Some bits are predictable, but there is drama, as well. In 2009, we lost dozens of trees in a derecho that left much of our acreage in permanent shambles and changed the path of the creek that feeds our pond so that it contains only about ¾ of the water that it used to. But even within predictable cycles like that of the fire bush that greens in the spring, and reddens in the fall there is always something new. It’s always bigger, and some years a brave bird builds a nest in it. If we have a wet year, the tiger lilies I planted on the pond’s bank will nearly drown and only a few blooms will show.

I never tire of walking outside and seeing what’s different. What’s new. What we’ve gained or what we’ve lost.



As I’m a writer, I bet you knew that this was going to come around to, well, writing.

I’m always surprised when new writers of any sort complain that they can’t think of anything to write about. It’s as though they’ve never met another human being before. That they have lived forever in a box or a single room that was always kept at the same temperature, and never looked out a window. (Hm. I think I’ve read that story.) Is that possible?

Psychologists have identified six basic human emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. (There’s new theory that says surprised/afraid and disgusted/angry are the same, but let’s be generous with ourselves. I’m all for that.) Add to that the theories that there are a limited number of story plots—I would even go so far as to call them human motivations. In the last two decades one guy came up with seven (Christopher Booker), another gets more specific with twenty (Ronald Tobias). And if you’re any kind of mathematician (which I am not), you can certainly figure out how many combinations of motivations and emotions can be thrown together to make a story.

And, if one is very clever, one can figure out how to set any one of those stories in a single location—say one room, twelve acres, or, like one writer—an escalator (Nicholson Baker’s THE MEZZANINE).


All right. Perhaps I’m exaggerating for effect. The deal is that any emotion is a trove of story. Take bitterness (come under angry or sad, don’t you think?). Bitterness is a slave to regret or disappointment. Regret is, sadly, a child of hope. Because one can’t grow bitter without there having been disappointment. And there is never disappointment unless there was, at some point, hope.

There it is. A life: Hope, disappointment, bitterness. What comes next? Lashing out? Death? Acceptance? Repentance? If it’s a happy ending, then the last thing we see is new hope.

But it’s all there, within view. These things play out in our own lives or in the lives of people close to us. We only have to reach out and appropriate them. No one will know because we are all pretty blind when it comes to what we are really showing the world.



Is this just another way of saying, “write what you know?” Perhaps. It doesn’t mean that, if you’re a doctor, you necessarily have to write about being a doctor. You can travel around the globe, set your story in outer space, or in the 14th century, but only the trappings will be different. The story we all want to hear is about revenge, or temptation, bitterness, sacrifice, rescue, fear, or happiness. Or whatever. And you will find all those things—if not in yourself—then on the twelve acres that is your life.




2 thoughts on “On What to Write”

  1. JT says:

    What a beautiful piece. Im about to start a new book and I’m putting this in my notebook. Thanks!

  2. Leta says:

    You’ve answered this same question for me before (and I do try to write at least fifteen minutes every day) so yes, it is a keeper. I love the photographs you’ve added. They provide a beautiful sense of place for your words.

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