On the Subject of Subject Matter
by Joan Schweighardt
When I was a little kid I loved to draw. I drew all the time. The problem was that sometimes there were things I wanted to draw, badly, and sometimes I was at my wits end trying to come up with new ideas. I would ask my mother, What should I draw? Cooking, cleaning, doing for my siblings or my father, she could not take the time to sit down at the table and puzzle out a vision for me. She would say the first thing that came into her head. For instance, she might come to a near-halt midway across the living room floor, the plastic laundry basket crushed to her chest, and glance out the window and see our neighbor Mr. D. outside with his hedge cutters, again (he was a fanatic). “Draw Mr. D.,” she’d say, and in a flash, before I had time to protest, she’d be gone.
Her ideas were always that bad. But if nothing else occurred to me, then I would eventually take my pad and pencils outside and sit in a place where Mr. D. wasn’t likely to see me, and start drawing. Since the subject matter (imagine it: old Mr. D., visible from his skinny chest up, his eyes ablaze with concentration, the awful giant slow-slicing scissors that would doubtless find their way into my dreams hours later) was outside my scope of interest, the finished drawing might be second rate. On the other hand, it might be okay. Sometimes I would come across details that weren’t obvious at the start (the glint of sunlight on those long sharp blades, the shadow from the house falling over half of Mr. D’s face…) and surprise myself.
But the best times were when I knew exactly what I wanted to draw, when I had closed in on my subject matter of preference with the ferocity of a dog closing in on a beefy bone. I drew my father’s profile in pastels. He was the perfect model. He sat for two hours without moving on night one, and two hours again on night two, his expression never altering. (He was watching TV; he never even knew I was drawing him!) When I got oil paints for Christmas one year, I did my first still life: a wine bottle, a wine glass and some lemons set out on a white tablecloth against a dark red background. Nobody in my family drank, so that wine bottle had been sitting on the kitchen counter teasing me with its highlights and shadows since the Christmas before. (Ironically, the wine had been a gift from Mr. D.) I was in love with the subject matter. I couldn’t wait to paint the wine glass, the thin gleam along the brim. I couldn’t wait to mix the colors that would bring those lemons to life. And I found I loved the breadth of an oil painting project too. The oil took forever to dry. There were endless opportunities to tweak, to add more details, to right any wrongs.
Writing has been more or less the same for me. When I know what I want to write about, I am unstoppable and more than happy to add details, polish, adjust, expand… My most recently published book, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, is an example of the unstoppable me. Last Wife is based, in part, on Nordic legends from a book called The Poetic Edda. The legends, which are all about love and lust and greed and loyalty—all unfolding in the darkest of the dark ages—are very earnest in their attempt to bring the historical Attila the Hun into some of their narratives. The legends are fragmentary, because they existed orally for centuries before anyone collected and recorded them, and therefore they lend themselves all sorts of possibilities and interpretations. Once I decided that I wanted to make them my own (which was virtually the minute I finished my first read-through), I also felt compelled to superimpose them over the historical material. That meant I had to learn everything about Attila and then everything about the Roman Empire and the main players in the battles between the Huns and the Romans, and on and on. I couldn’t have been happier.
Writing The Last Wife of Attila the Hun was an oil painting writ large. I was engaged, often enraptured. I’ve worked on other projects like that, but I’ve also written some books over the years that have been the equivalent of drawing Mr. D.: While I might be happy with the outcome, getting them off the ground can feel like work—good work, but work nonetheless.
Today a friend of mine, a fabulous writer, asked me what she should write her next book about. She had a collection of essays published recently and it was very well received. For her it was an oil painting, a book she loved working on. Now she wants to write something new because it is time, but nothing has occurred to her. This friend loves cats, so I suggested she start with a cat and work from there. It was the kind of suggestion my mother might have made, but my friend thought it was a good one.
There are two kinds of people in the writing world, it seems; there are those who must write all the time whether they are obsessed with a subject or not, and those who can go years waiting for the perfect idea to rear its lovely head. I saw Isabel Allende on a TV show interview recently. She said she starts each new novel on January 8, right after her holiday break. If she doesn’t have an idea when the 8th rolls around, she starts anyway and an idea always follows. I have never given myself a start date, but I like the concept.
Actually there may be three kinds of people in the writing world. Maybe there are people who continually have fresh ideas they fall in love with all the time. Maybe writers like Jodi Pocoult and Joyce Carol Oats get their “next book” ideas before they finish what they’re working on. Or maybe they are like me—and Isabel Allende, for that matter. Maybe, feeling compelled to write nonstop, they will look for the light on Mr. D’s hedge cutters while they wait for Attila to wield his resplendent sword.
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