On Finding Your Subject
When I began grad school our daughter started kindergarten. She'd go off with her backpack to the local school and I'd go to the university with my book bag. I'd written a couple of books of poetry by then but was still learning (and still am about pretty much everything). I took a class on prose writing with the elegant Greg Hollingshead. I'd intended to write fiction, but what happened instead was that the first thing I wrote for the class was an essay which happened to be about still life. This essay later ended up in a collection of essays about same, titled, Calm Things. I remember him saying, "This is very good material." And I had one of those moments one has when things become suddenly clear. For a long time, I'd been imagining that to write something decent, something worth writing, I'd have to go somewhere, live somewhere else. Do something exciting. And this all seemed impossible given our circumstances. But in fact, I realized, my subject matter was right before me. (My husband, an artist, was painting still life at this time).
I probably hadn't come across the following lines by Rumi yet:
The mystery does not get clearer by repeating the question,
nor is it bought with going to amazing places.
Until you've kept your eyes
and your wanting still for fifty years,
you don't begin to cross over from confusion.
So, thanks to Greg, I persisted with that subject, I stuck with it, believing that I had found my subject matter. And I had.
As I've continued with my writing, and as I've added photography into my practice, I realized that my subject has always been right in front of me, and it's been useful for me to say what it is, so that when I lose track of what it is, I have it as a touchstone. My subject is beauty and light and art. When I looked back at a certain point, these were things that I was always interested in, and in my work they emerge in various ways. But they're there. And I imagine will always be there.
It's the love of beauty that draws me to light and to art. "To love beauty is to see light," said Victor Hugo and I continue to marvel at all the effects of light, and how it enters us, illuminates, withdraws.
When it comes to my photography, I remind myself that I don't have to go on expensive trips, buy fascinating trinkets, or huge bouquets of flowers. (Not that I'm against any of these things per se). It's just that when I look for what's already there, I might be further ahead, anyway.
The advice I'm giving is to look at what's in front of you, but also to notice what draws you to it. For writers, the usual advice is to write what you know, which is fine in its way, but limiting. There's an article from 2009 on The Guardian by Laura Cumming titled "Composition: Choosing a Subject to Paint" where she notes:
"What to paint? Writers are always advised to write about what they know, but what should artists depict? If they all only painted what was in front of them, or what was inside them, art history would be short of all sorts of masterpieces, from The Sistine Chapel to The Last Supper, Liberty on the Barricades to The Raft of the Medusa.
Finding subject matter can be a lifelong struggle. Mondrian spent decades painting windmills and rivers before he found form with geometric abstraction."
She ends the article by saying, "If you don't know where to start, take Leonardo's advice and look at the stains on your walls: there you will find endless new forms to jump-start a painting."
And this was Leonardo's advice:
It should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which... you may find really marvellous ideas.
What are your themes? What do you love? What are you able to write or make right now?