Zoë’s and Anna’s thoughtful comments about the process of writing last week prompted me to think about how we choose what to write about, and how we go about writing it.

Do you tend to choose subjects, or do subjects choose you? Do you ever feel called to write something—that a subject or image, like an annoying mosquito, suddenly buzzes in your consciousness and won’t let you alone? Or do you struggle even to decide what to write about? I admit, I prefer that someone else give me at least the barest outlines of a topic, like a recipe for meat loaf to which I can add my own spices, sauces and sides. And maybe if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll throw in an extra egg, or some exotic vegetables. (OK, maybe the meat loaf metaphor doesn’t work for you. Pick your favorite dish.)

Even with an assigned topic, we still have to make innumerable choices when we write. First, there are the words. The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, lists 171,476 current words, along with 46,156 “obsolete” ones. Even if you eliminate every word containing, say, the letter m, that’s still a lot to consider. Then there are jargon words, regionalisms and foreign words that the OED doesn’t include—and, of course, recent slang, LOL. Talk about the tyranny of choice.

Then there’s punctuation. And rhythm. And cool stuff like metaphors, similes, syntax, synecdoche—and sibilance, don’t you know.

Speaking of synecdoche, I saw the new Charlie Kaufman film, Synecdoche, New York, last weekend. (It’s a writer’s movie—see it.) Among minor themes like sex and death, Kaufman explores the nature of making artistic choices. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a struggling theater director who one day wins a MacArthur “genius grant” and must decide how he will use the money. “I’m dying and want to do something important while I’m still here,” Cotard tells his shrink, and spends the rest of the movie creating a labyrinthine, ever-evolving play mirroring his own life. The director gives his cast of hundreds scenarios to act out, and then has them improvise to find “the truth” in their scenes. But as the years—yes, years!—of rehearsals and development go by, and the mammoth stage set grows into a small city, the slowly graying characters take on lives of their own. Cotard’s criticisms, or “notes,” become criticisms of himself. He becomes trapped in his own creation and doesn’t know how to end it. (And though I loved the movie, I got the sense Kaufman didn’t know how to end it, either.)

One of the mysteries of writing—which scares the hell out of a control freak like me—is that you never really know where it will go. Beginning in chaos, it often ends somewhere totally unexpected, like this post has for me. No wonder we can get uncomfortable or blocked when we start. All those choices can be daunting, and so often words and the ways we use them choose us, not we them. Or else they don’t come at all, and you sit there watching the cursor blink like some cosmic clock marking the inevitable march toward death. (They don’t call them deadlines for nothing.)

For me, writing is ultimately a question of faith: if I face my fear and believe I can do it, I’ll produce something at least halfway decent. If not, then even the best meat loaf recipe will do me no good. So, have a little faith, folks. In both writing and in life, if we keep pressing on, we’ll eventually make some great, tasty discoveries. What discoveries have you made lately? What recipes have worked for you?

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