Monday, December 5, 2011

What is Your Material?

In her book, Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See dedicates an entire chapter to the question What is Your Material?  She asks us to “Notice the stuff that interests you!”  I think the concept of our writing material has a worthy place in a blog on writing craft.  It’s important that we become familiar with our personal material, that we explore why it’s important to us, and that we learn how to compost it.   This concept of composting is Natalie Goldberg’s:

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil.  Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.  But this does not come all at once.  It takes time.  Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall though the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

Once when I was just taking up writing seriously, my architect brother asked me, “What are you going to contribute to the field?”  The question stymied me, but years later, after becoming more familiar with my material, the question seems much more appealing. 
            I’ve found my material returns again and again to the theme of adoption.  Without a doubt, I’ve been forever altered by the experience of being an adoptive mother.  But beyond that, raising my daughter has awoken me to the ways in which adoption themes run through my own life, despite the fact that my husband and I are the first to ever adopt in our family.  This quotation from Karin Evans’ The Lost Daughters of China embodies how my material is so precious to me:

“As a writer I have immersed myself in other subjects, but have always returned to the adoption theme.  Whether in fantasy or reality, it haunts us all, adopted and non-adopted alike.  It is a metaphor for the human condition, sending us forth on that mythic quest that will prove we are bonded to each other and to all creatures of this world –and in the process, reveal to us who we are.”
--Betty Jean Lifton Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1988)

Indeed, I have found that whether or not actual adoption finds its way into my characters live, they often end up, in some sense, adopting each other.
            And sometimes our writing material, by virtue of its nature, makes special demands of us.  In my post next Monday, I want to look into the special challenges my material has raised for me –in particular, writing cross-culturally.  In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’ve discovered about your material.  How do you stay in touch with it?  How do you fuel your compost pile?

1 comment:

  1. Provocative question. What is my material? As you said, it does take time to get perspective on what you return to again and again. I am always trying to shape my writing, make it less amorphous. My recurring themes are introversion, self-actualization and parenting. Love them all. Thanks for a thoughtful post.