The Author’s Subject
This subject may be compared to the grain of sand which gets into an oyster and forms the irritating nucleus of a pearl. It is seldom that the author chooses it; rather, it chooses him, inhabits him, and may remain with him throughout life. Every piece of work he turns out has or lacks quality according to the degree in which this intimate subject appears in it.
Fortunately for those who wish to write, nearly every human being has a grain of sand in him somewhere. Something ails him, something – a frustration, inhibition, disillusionment, shame, fear, distress, or mere fixation. Any of these will do very nicely, provided the author has the wit to handle it.
For literature is the notation of the human heart, and without that grain of sand to set the writer going, there would be nothing to read, nothing written. Subject-matter is only the raw material through which the intimate subject works.
Thus, when a man writes well of the French Revolution, he may be actually expressing his undying, because unsatisfied, resentment of some bully who beat him up as a lad. When he writes of the exposure of the corrupt politician, he may be unconsciously dramatizing the theft of his beloved tricycle. If, like Edgar Allen Poe, he was shocked when he saw his mother shut up in her coffin, he will suffer from claustrophobia, and write well of situations wherein people are wailed up or buried alive. When he produces a thriller about a haunted house, it is probably because as a chill he had to go to bed in the dark. And so with painful or happy events of later life. They act come out in the wash as intimate subjects.
Thus it appears that the intimate subject is, as it were, the soars of the author’s work, while the subject-matter is only the flesh and blood. Both should belong and work together, if the work is to be a masterpiece.
Of course, a man may choose deliberately his general subject-matter, and so through study of it, “get interested” until it becomes a passion with him. His intimate subjects however, is outside his conscious will; he must make the most of whatever intimate subject life has given him.
Fortunately, almost any subject-matter can be made to serve the purpose, and it is probably better to adopt, rather than throw overboard the subject-matter already on hand.
Thus, your general subject-matter is, as it were, dough; your intimate subject is yeast. You must use both to make bread – fact with passion.
Now in fiction this passions this emotion, is always that of a character in the story. But in non-fiction, the emotion is that of the writer. That is why it is so necessary that you write about something that interests and excites you. For where your task is to serve your materials hot, you will not and cannot succeed, if there is no fire in you. You must always write of what is cooking. Your reader will not accept anything served cold.
Probably, it will be best not to worry too much about your intimate subject, particularly after you have discovered what it is. Rather let your mind dwell upon the general subject-matter, dream about that, and you may find the intimate subject taking hold of those raw materials, shaping them to its own purpose, and making them go along without trouble. If not, then is the time to use a little discipline, and make sure that the intimate subject has its opportunity. Then your work will have the follow-through, the drive and swing that make it a delight, a real self-expression. You will give the reader both barrels. There is nothing he likes so much
Give him as they say, the works – your works!
Next: Writing Patterns