And how much time should you take saying it?
This is in all areas of this work: editors have little to no say in what they can accept and work with; it all passes by the lovely marketing folks and the acquisitions people, bean-counters and number-crunchers.
I am in agreement with you, Ramona, but this thing is far more insidious and wide-spread.
But one does have to be able to live with the knowledge that what they might have to offer the world isn't "enough"--and so they strive to be what is wanted.
Then again, if I'm in a different mood when someone asks the question, and at my most cynical, I might have another answer. Quite the question you've raised here!
Omg I’m the first to comment! That never happens. Here’s my experience:
Writers want to write. They have a big book idea, they might have even started writing it, but they have been told that to sell that book eventually they need to begin building their brand yesterday. And part of that brand, for a writer, is a platform where they write short-form content regularly so would-be readers of their eventual novel will fall in love with their voice and ideas and then buy and read the eventual book so the author can finally start making money from the book.
But, especially as a long-form fiction writer, it’s hard to know what to write in short form on a regular basis.
What I’ve heard, and what I pass along, is to write around the themes you treat in your stories. My book is about reproductive rights and motherhood, so I write about motherhood and women’s issues. It’s a sci fi dystopian book, so I share other dystopian/sci fi stories. That kind of thing.
Hmm. I'm not the best one to answer the question, because I've never asked it. I occasionally ask myself, "Of several writing ideas or projects, which I should devote attention to?" Or "Do I have enough time to work with this idea I just had, or do I make notes on it and hope I can retrieve that thread later?" (I'm 50/50 on working from my notes — sometimes I understand what I've written, but the notes don't put me back in the mainframe where I SEE the results in my head again.) I guess if someone asked me, "What should I write about?", I'd have to counter with, "What have you written up to this point in your life?" And if they can't give me examples, then, sorry, you're not a writer and you need to think about another line of work.
This is a fascinating question. I love your comparison to asking ‘what kind of air should I breathe today?’ That said, I understand the impulse. I think the question is born out of desperation as well as indecision. I've asked it before, but it's almost always rhetorical. I've asked it aloud in those moments I feel like I'll never have another idea, but I know the question of what to write is a problem I have to solve myself. Only I can save myself by simply committing to a topic or a paper or a story, even when I feel unsure about it. Deciding to go for it is how the real work can begin. I wonder if the people asking this question in office hours are simply afraid of committing to any idea in case it ends up being the wrong one.
The other question I find interesting is "how do I keep writing". I think sometimes the how of writing can be as inexplicable as the what. Obviously there's plenty to learn in terms of style and technical skill, but how do you give instructions on sitting with the blank page until something comes out?
Write about what you feel and what you know - your own experiences and own feelings. Start there. It can lead to fiction, it can lead to auto fiction, maybe something else. Be personal.
Hmm, that's a tough one for me because my problem has always been feeling I have more to say than I have time to say it. As you say, it's tough enough finding time to write something well, without having to also come up with what to write.
Like you, I never know what to say when folks ask that question in the Substack chat.
Some good comments already here, but I think it boils down to, what do you have to say and start there. I do think there are people who think that writing is this easy thing that they can just sit down and do. They don't want to put the work in to do GOOD writing. But if they want to do the work, just start writing. Say what you want to say. Make it short and develop a habit. Skill and ideas will come the more they write.
I think this is really just the same question as, “Where do you get your ideas?” They’re welcome to some of my ideas, if they want them. I have way too many!
Honestly, if a writer asked what they should write about, I'd answer with another question. I'd ask them what they can talk about day after day and never run out of things to say and never get sick of showing up. Sometimes that's a topic. More often it's a group of people and if they know who the group of people is, they won't run out of topics. :)
I would put the question back on them - what do you want to write about? If I've learned anything from the writer's hour it is that I should write what is in my heart and what I have a passion to talk about.
I've never had a writer ask me this question (just born lucky, I guess). I have had young writers ask how they can get a job as a writer. Most recently I wrote a 5 paragraph email to a young woman (recent graduate of a state university with a BA in English) which began with "What do you want to write about?"/"What can you be satisfied writing about?" and continued with specific steps she should take. In her reply, she very politely thanked me, then asked "But how do I get a JOB as a writer?"
I wanted to say that perhaps she should learn to read first. (But that would have been mean.)
"What should I write about?" sounds to me like someone who lacks confidence in their own writing instincts and is looking for permission to follow them.
"So my immediate first impression is we have a dilettante on our hands. Someone who wants to be a writer but doesn’t want to do the work." I'm afraid I agree, and perhaps unlike Alison I'm in a good mood and not feeling in the least bit cynical! The implication is that writing doesn't require much thought or expertise. My answer to such a question would either be nothing or something along the lines of "If you don't know what to write about, what are you doing here?"
Peter Coffee said "If you have nothing to say, a wordprocessor won't say it for you." (Cited in my seminal treatise, Lots of Laws: https://terryfreedman.substack.com/p/lots-of-laws)
An exception, though, would be in a writing group. In the STSC the prompt for the next 'Symposium' is Dinosaurs, and my initial reaction was "What the hell can I write about on that topic?". I've also been invited to write a guest post for someone, with a similar reaction! But if you are thinking of starting a blog or a newsletter and you have no idea what to write about, that suggests you don't know why you want to start it in the first place. In which case, why do you want to, and please stop wasting my time!
Do you think I am being unkind?
Don't be daft, Alison. I'd like all the publicity I can get! Seriously though, thank you for asking, but a mention of me and my newsletter would be very welco indeed 🤓
'What should I write' is akin to asking 'what should I cook for dinner'? Both questions are premised on a set of tools, ingredients, and skills readily at the disposal of the person asking. Ergo, based on self knowledge, only the person asking the question can provide an appropiate answer. Alternatively, they're ignorant of the need to be in possession of a few rudimentary tools, ingredients, and skills, which would negate the question; it's flushing the silence with words. I can ask for spaghetti, but I'll be getting takeout if they don't have any pasta and don't know how to cook.
Yes, that was my thought, too. Being functionally literature and having a keyboard means low barriers to entry. Until last year, I was unaware that there's a huge online industry, especially on YouTube, for sharing the formulas to successful writing, with a large and fawning audience, and in the process, encouraging a million suboptimal would-be writers. There's something a bit off about it.
The advice I have just followed is to just start writing and not worry too much about how good it is or how many people will read it and that’s what I’ve done. I am retired and not planning to do it for money but I would like an audience. Hunter Thompson once said words to the effect that writing is a hard dollar and I believe him! It’s all channelled anyway isn’t it? All you’ve got to do is make sure the channels are open and then write it down and hope that God has something to say!