Writers Journey: On Subject-Matter

In the last article in this series, I jokingly suggested that a fiction writer might be able to take any subject-matter as their premise as long as their characters were interesting.  Here I would like to pause for a moment and mention that there are some subject-matters that seem dull and some subject-matters that are dull.

Insight is the main quality to determining which is which.  Insight followed by a certain amount of sensitivity.  But what is insight?  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the power or act of seeing into a situation: penetration” and also “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.”

It’s a good phrase:  seeing into a situation.  When we are looking at subject-matter that may appear dull, it takes a certain level of penetration, of intuitively seeking the inner nature of something that brings its inner luster to the surface.  Like many precious stones that come out of the earth looking like unformed lumps of dull matter, it takes a writer quite a long time of concentrating to determine whether or not something is of any use.  Raw sapphire or emerald appears deceptively uninteresting.  But given the right cuts it can become a faceted gem.

A writer may not cut into her subject-matter in order to find and reveal its facets, but should be able to take the reader through the subject-matter in such a way that the journey within becomes as clear as cut crystal.  Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener is a good example of a tale that reveals facets within what might appear to be dull material.  What could be more mundane than the work of a scrivener?

Bartleby worked at his craft until one day he answers his employer with what soon becomes his signature phrase: “I would prefer not to.”  To the dismay of Bartleby’s employer, Bartleby performs fewer and fewer tasks around the office. The emotional tension that is created by one man’s refusal to do his work culminates in his employer moving out of the building to escape the social implications.  Later, the new landlords forcibly evict Bartleby and the scrivener is sent to prison.  In prison, he refuses to eat and dies of starvation.

Later we learn that Bartleby had been working at a dead letter office, handling undeliverable mail.  His employer had decided that such a job must have brought Bartleby into a terrible state of depression.  And here the reader may stop for a moment and consider such a basic, mundane existence as a letter handler or a scrivener with a fresh perspective.  In fact the choice of point of view within the tale is of equal mention.  The story is not told from Bartleby’s point of view.  Melville has given the reader a new view of philosophy, psychology, as well as a criticism of consumerism.  This is wrapped in a very plain package: one scrivener, one employer, and one office building.

Not all insights have to be as gloomy as Melville’s tale.  But it is a perfect inspection of seemingly dull subject-matter made interesting through the penetration of an author’s insights.


Meditation for your journal:  What insights might I uncover in my subject-matter?  Why did this subject-matter appeal to me?