“What do you write about?”…..aw, crap. That question.

The question all writers dread: What do you write?

We can usually fob this off by genre-listing: I write literary fiction and erotica, non-fiction, and dabble a bit in sci-fi and fantasy.

The problem is that this isn’t really what they’re asking and if they’re not the easily-assuaged type, they follow up with an even worse question: What do you write about?

For the love of God, just read the book!

I think the reason this question is so hard is because, to answer it, you have to reveal a rather large part of your soul, and that’s just not something people like to do at all, much less at cocktail parties or when meeting someone new.

Consider my answer: I write about that moment it dawns on someone that their whole world is not only not what they thought it was, but is actually only tenuously balanced on a teetering structure of lies they’ve told themselves to keep from seeing reality. And I agree with Flannery O’Connor, we only get to that moment through violence.

This is always a good look to get when explaining something that lives at the center of your soul.

That’s pretty much a conversation-stopper.

Thank God, because the next question, asked with any of a variety of “I’m uncomfortable now” faces, is: Why do you write about that?

Sometimes I say this: I’m drawing a road map so if people want to give themselves an authenticity check-up, they know where to go.

Which I realize is waaaay too cryptic.

So I wrote a little story to illustrate what I’m talking about. (That’s an annoying thing we writers do. If we can’t get you to understand with “telling,” we’ll get all metaphorical on you. It probably makes you want to  slap us, but what can we do?)

Anyway, it goes like this:


It wasn’t until I was shoved up against the wall, your fist an inch from my face, that I started to think, “I’d like not to be here again, if I can help it.”

Does your fist have to land first? Or can it stop there, your breath hot on my face, your other hand twisted in the front of my shirt? Is that enough?


But maybe not.

I know the path out is more than this scene; this is just physicality, the flesh between you and me. But maybe I need the fist on flesh, the splitting of skin, the warmth of my own blood, to convince me I am, indeed, walking down a path that no longer suits me.

How did I get here? Ah. That is a question that will keep you up at night if you really try to answer it.

It wasn’t by thinking. Or not thinking. There is a third thing, as Hegel said, as I say, as we know from experience. There is always a third thing. And sometimes a fourth, fifth, and sixth thing. But there are never, ever just two things.

In this instance, there is the wall. There is the fist. One, two. But there is also the space between them. And in that space exists something I spent a lot of time not naming—not because I can’t, but because I won’t. It is responsibility.

I have to look in that space and see my own path, my own choices, and how they led to this, “this” being whatever it is that serves to scare the shit out of us, in this case being shoved up against a wall and threatened with physical violence.

Those choices are what lurk in the dark after the kiss has been administered, the drink of water has been consumed, the song has been sung. They are the monster under the bed that no flashlight or candle can eradicate. Why are they so scary? Because we have met them, and they are us.

Those choices are the basis for the shadow agreement I’ve made with you—we promise to recreate our bad times for each other. “I’ll stay with you even though you threaten to hit me,” my agreement goes, “because this recreates the intense fear I felt living in my house growing up.”

Me cringing against the wall did not start with me storming into the apartment and saying the stupid shit I said. No, I watched my father and mother scream at each other for years first, felt the way that made something sharp and hot crawl into my stomach and settle. I watched how she pestered him constantly about what he was doing and how it wasn’t good enough, smart enough, right, well done, or even wanted. I watched them both do their damndest to prove the other was worthless.

I watched and learned that the sharp-hot belly, and the screaming, and the shaming, was what I was supposed to feel, and do. And I picked you, in the shadow world of unexamined neuroses, because you were the perfect match for making sure I could recreate those things forever.

I paved my adult path with the shattered concrete I had been handed through the years, constantly trying to match it up, make it whole, not looking closely enough to realize it was never going to fit together again, that the right choice was to look for an unbroken piece and work with that.

So now I stand, your fist an inch from my face, between the moment you grabbed me and this moment, the mobius strip of time slipping through my nostrils and out of my mouth, my eyes wide open. . .

My feet do not move but something in me slides out, around you, down the hall. It pads into the bedroom and gathers together my clothes and lights a match and throws it on, watches as the flames lick around the edges of the pile, dance upwards, throw smoke up to form a black shadow on the ceiling. A shadow I need to leave behind.

Your hand uncurls and drops. My shirt falls into wrinkles filled and pressed with your sweat. You back away and run into the couch. I watch your body in motion and then at rest. You turn over and press your face into the pillow.

I do not move. I do not have to. I already have.

“Fault” is a word to further distract me from “choices.” It is not a word I want to know any more. I want to know how to rip up the concrete burying me in my choices and watch the darkness wriggle and come to life. I want to dig my hands in until they are black and crawling with filth, until I can taste dirt in the back of my throat, until I can look those choices in the eyes and not look away.

Until I know what they are and why I made them.

And then I want to leave the earth torn up and turn. And walk a different way.

I turn to the door. For a moment I am still there.

Then I am gone.


It’s not comfortable, what I put my characters through in my stories. But comfort does not lead to change. Comfort feeds the shadow agreement.

Comfort is death.

Don’t you want to come up and talk to me at the next cocktail party?

11 thoughts on ““What do you write about?”…..aw, crap. That question.

    • You are awesome, Julie! Thank you! And yeah, you’re one of the rare ones that doesn’t flinch from the stuff under the concrete.

  1. I hate that question.

    You hit the nail on the head there. I have trouble enough spilling my soul onto a page much less telling someone about my litterbox… I mean, book.

    Every time I’m asked that question (which is anytime I mention that writing is my second job) I want to look for the puppy pad to wet on…

    Can’t people just leave my thoughts in my head and buy the book.

    Besides if I gave them the log line to the Maraude series, I sound like I’m writing a fan fic of Hunger Games with a twist of Blood Sport using Tom Clancy’s voice.

    Okay, that is what I’m doing, but I’ve been designing this series for nearly 30 years. It is my oldest story because so much of it is allegorical to me and my real life, and the segues that my mind would go even as an eight year old to try to answer the burning question that all of us face: What If?

    Great Stuff Theresa

    • YES: what if?

      I think all writers have a core question and it’s inextricably linked to who we are, what we’ve experienced, and how we believe the world works. That core question drives us and my experience is that every story, book, flash fic, whatever, is a furthering of the attempt to answer that question.

      And HEY, you don’t see ME walking up to people at casual get-togethers and asking “Excuse me, but please tell me who you see yourself as, all the dark little things that happened to you as a child, and if you agree that everyone around you is wearing a mask they created just to get through the suffering inherent in the human condition.” *leans forward and sips drink*

      I think that basically breaks the social contract right there.

      Plus it’s exactly as you said–I’ve written 100K words, several times over, tons of short stories, non-fic out the yang, and I’m supposed to somehow capture my entire zeitgeist and boil it down to a few pithy sentences. And they wonder why we start squinting and staring into the middle distance.

      I LOVE your description of what you write! Cracked me up. I’ll have to come up with something like that. Hm…I write fan fic of Cat’s Eye with a twist of She’s Come Undone using Flannery O’Connor’s voice. Ha ha! That’s great!

      In awe that you have a series that will take 30 books to complete. Criminey. I’d better get on the stick. ;)

      Thanks for such a provocative and well-written comment, Aric!


      • Heheh, Thanks.

        Sorry it has taken so long to see if you’ve left a reply.

        About my series. I actually have 4 other series with several “singles” in the mix. Most have never touched the populace yet. The two that have are being cringed at every time I think of them being out there for someone to read. They are okay I guess, but I have pushed myself so hard since last summer, to over come my obstacles as a writer (grammar anyone?).

        My Stage novel is one of three books, and there was to be companion CDs for each of them. Of course the bands are fictional and the players for the CD are mostly me, myself, and I and my awesome composer brother.

        So yeah, to break what I write down to a single line?

        Enough to give God a headache, meesathinks.

        • I know about the cringeworthy. Criminey, I can’t read anything I’ve published. Good news is almost every author I’ve ever heard talk about that says they can’t re-read something once it’s “out there,” either. Red pencil city! As you know, nothing is ever “done.”

          And yes, we’re all changing as writers all the time–I have a book I’ve re-written FOUR TIMES because my style keeps changing. It’s on the back burner that I’ve placed somewhere in Siberia right now. ;)

          This is the other half of that God-headache for sure. Although I can’t help but think it’s self-inflicted.

          I was going to buy one of your books, but you said in your blog not to, as it was being reworked….should I wait? Let me know.

          Love the idea of companion CDs!!

  2. Stage is in the process of being reworked, yes. It is a good story, and it is readable, but I’ve learned so much about presentation (and staying in one POV heheh) and I have given the story an actual main character the whole way through rather than finding her at the middle of the book. The problem with just jumping in head first into NaNoWriMo… Yeah, that…
    I would love for you to purchase one, but it is in a major revamp. Probably the most ready is Neighbor’s Basement. It needs work too, but I was more prepared for Nano that year.
    Stage had actually been selected at one point to be a pod-casted book by some good friends of mine who have worked with several prominent authors over at podiobooks.com. They started a production company and were even going to make a graphic novel of one of their own works at one point.
    And so that is what I wrote it to be. Stage is 120,000 words broken into 20 chapters, designed to be a serial 20 episode series of narrated story. Kind of like two years worth of a TV series.
    If that is readable to you, it would be fine to buy it as is, but I would wait for this summer. My critique partner is really kicking my butt…

    • Oh I know all about writing whole books and then having your writing style or what you know about writing change! Criminey, I’ve rewritten whole novels, changing point of view, tense, story arcs, everything. Honestly, though, I think it’s one of the best ways to learn, even if it means some projects sit on the shelf for a while because you can’t bear to look at them for another second.

      NaNoWriMo…..yeah, I’ve flirted with doing that for years, but here’s my problem: in the process of reworking one of my books, I used placeholders for physical beats (like “He crossed his arms” and such), knowing I was going to go back and change them when I had the arcs down. UNFORTUNATELY what I was really doing was training my brain to think only of crap physical beats. That was years ago and I still have to let those first impulse beats flow through until something original comes up.

      So I’m SO leary of NaNo, where you’re writing super fast and trying for word count, because I’m afraid I’ll practice crap writing habits for a month and totally screw myself up!

      That is really cool about podcasting your book! Is it going to be acted out with different voices or read straight-up? I think either way would be awesome. It reminds me (yes, everything reminds me of something) of Hitchhiker’s Guide, only those were radio programs first, then a book.

      So I’ll wait till summer, on your recommendation. ;) It’s so great to give yourself a deadline. I know I noodle around with word choices and moving little bits around forever unless I have a deadline. Then I turn it in and I DON’T READ IT AGAIN until I hear back from whomever. Otherwise I go completely insane, wishing I’d changed that or done this with that arc or whatever. UGH. I’ve read that most authors, once something is published, never read it again.

      Glad your critique partner is kicking your butt! That’s their job. ;)

  3. This consideration on “shame” is just splendid! How do I find part II?
    I really respect the effort to turn this powerful energetic source–in me–into creativity, into art and therefore to transform it–in me! Beautifully done dear Theresa. Thank you.

    • Thank you thank you! Yes, that’s my goal, to transform its power into art. Part II will be published on November 1st, so I’ll post the second half that day!

    • I think you may have wanted to comment on The Hidden Motivation: Shame–I’m not sure how your comment ended up at the end of “What Do You Write About?” :D :D

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