A couple of weeks ago, up in New York, I met the great editing guru Jay Lovinger. At dinner I told him the four questions I use in my writing workshops to help people figure out what to write about. “I’m stealing those questions,” Jay said. So I figured everybody else might as well steal them, too.
Here’s how this works. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into fourths — columns, rows, quadrants, whatever you want. Then take a few minutes to answer each question. Your answers will be in the form of lists. You don’t have to show your answers to anyone else. So be honest.
Here are the questions, with a bit of instruction for each one:
1. What do you know about?
(List everything you think you know more about than the average person. It can be tiny and specific — the block where you live — or big and abstract — grief, or love, or whatever. Don’t be modest. Set your ego free.)
2. What do you care about?
(List your passions … again, they should be small and large and everything in between. Don’t be ashamed of what you care about. I care about professional wrestling. Put it out there.)
3. What are you curious about?
(Things you want to learn — Spanish? — and things you already know about but have an insatiable desire to know more.)
4. What scares you?
(All your fears and worries … everything from spiders to dying alone.)
Now, look at your lists. These are the topics you ought to be writing about. I don’t mean you have to write about your own experiences, though it’s fine if you do. What I mean is, these are the topics that populate your mind and your heart. They’re the things that matter to you.
Even if you’re writing about another person in a different situation, these topics will sneak in as subtext. This is natural, because you are human, and even if you’re writing about strangers, you are there with them in the words.
If you can make connections between things on two or three of those lists, that’s your most fertile ground. Those connections are where writers make careers.
Keep that sheet handy when you’re stuck. Update it every year or so, maybe on your birthday. It’s useful, I think, as a way to look at your writing. And by now you’ve already figured that it’s also useful as a way to look at your life.