Sunday, March 14, 2010


Since finishing a recent project, I’ve started thinking about how a writer decides on a subject to pursue, a story to explore, a character to investigate, a plot to develop.

What draws us to the stories that we ultimately find ourselves telling?

Some might say it’s easy. You just ask a librarian what readers are requesting. Or you study trends. Or you spot a fad.

But I think it’s much harder than that to find the subject of your heart’s desire.

It involves understanding on a deeper level, I think, the advice that every writer has often heard at times of uncertainty: Write what you know.

I don’t think it's an exhortation to write only what you know. I think it's an attempt to urge you to write what you wish you knew... what you hope to learn ... what you desperately need to know.

But that only brings us back to my original question: how do you decide on a subject? How do you know, in other words, what you need to know?

I don’t think it’s a question that you can answer quickly. Often I’ve found a subject too quickly, only to lose interest in it before long... and then shake my head wondering why I found it so appealing in the first place.

No, I think it may take days or weeks to probe your heart, to listen to the stillness as you tread water, to wait for an answer to rise to the surface and reveal itself to you.

Learning what you need to know requires that you do something that I call heartswimming–swimming while listening to your heart and discovering the subjects and stories that mean the most to you.

Not what your editor or agent suggest that you write because it may make you tons of money. Not what you think you should write because it’s what you’ve written before or it’s what others think you should be writing. Not what you think might be easier to write or shorter or more popular.

No, heartswimming means shutting out the external world and listening to your heart as you swim through the water.

It means listening to how you respond on a deep level to subjects that you find as you swim and being able to recognize which subjects stick to your skin and which slip away.

Most of all, it means beginning to understand which subjects get under your skin and keep you awake at night and cause your blood to race when you wake up because you can’t wait to get to your desk to begin writing to see where your pen will lead you.

Heartswimming isn’t about outlines or free-writing or list-making, although these tools are sometimes helpful when you need to listen more closely to what you’re feeling and thinking.

No, heartswimming is about listening... and letting go of preconceptions and stereotypes of who you are and what you think your writing should be... really listening to who you are, to what you’re curious about, to what you want to know.

It means being open to the world, being receptive, being able to let your curiosity lead you into unexpected places and unexpected subjects.

It means being able to play and laugh and think.

And, ultimately, it means letting yourself sink beneath the surface and following your heart to the subject of your heart’s desire.

For more on heartswimming–or writing what you know–visit:


Carmela Martino said...

Hi Bruce,
I think it's especially challenging to be a heartswimmer in the current economy. There's a great deal of pressure, even for published writers, to write something "marketable" or that has "a hook." Maybe some writers can write that way, but I can't. I need a personal investment in what I'm writing to have the fortitude to stick with it on those days when I feel as though I'm swimming against the current.
Thanks for another insightful post.

Jack said...

That was an excellent post, Bruce. I find it so demoralizing to think about writing for 'the market.' Getting published is a grand achievement, but I couldn't endure if the journey of writing didn't bring such abundance of other rewards, too.

Since it's St. Pat's Day I can't resist leaving you with:

May your road always rise to meet you,
may the wind be always at your back,
may the sun shine warm upon your face,
and may the rain fall soft upon your fields,
and may your publisher call you with the good news today!