In the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient story from India which has guided generations of readers (including Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau) on how to live with purpose, one character tells his struggling counterpart:
You don’t know what to choose because you don’t know your True Self.
As both a yogi and a writer, I don’t think there’s one sentence more appropriate — or more cutting — that captures why so many writers struggle with the ongoing and ever present dilemma that every writer experiences on his or her creative journey:
“But what should I write about?”
I actually built a corner of my business around helping writers solve for this very creative struggle. From 2012 to 2016, my paid-membership online writers’ group served hundreds of writing prompts and lessons to a community of 300 writers from 17 countries.
While one intention I had for the group was to help members write more and better, I also wanted to help writers enjoy their writing journeys, rather than feel locked in a constant creative struggle.
As the years unfolded, I noticed a pattern:
The most significant growth for my writers happened when skill-building practice intersected with personal topics that guided writers into better knowing their true selves.
Don’t get me wrong. Fun, imaginative prompts are great for jump-starting creativity or unsticking your voice. No one wants to know more about what happens when Bigfoot goes vegan than I do.
And yet, if you really want to feel like being a writer is enhancing the quality of your life?
At some point, you will want what you’re writing about to intersect with the life that you’re living — and, for it to better inform you of how you’re living it.
Answering the question “What do I write about?”
Of the hundreds of prompts, lessons and conversations I’ve offered to help writers write more and write better, there’s one six-word question that is the most direct path into answering the elusive question of what to write about, which can also help inform the writer of what he or she is experiencing in life right now on a personal level.
That question is:
“What have I been avoiding lately?”
It’s important to distinguish the idea of what you’re avoiding from what you don’t like, what you’re afraid of, or what you don’t want.
The difference is that “avoidance” implies a choice has already been made in the direction of what’s being avoided. What you’ve been avoiding is already calling for your attention. Think of that book idea that you’ve been mulling over for years. Or a blog post idea that is still only a couple bulletpoints, but clamoring for your attention. Maybe there’s an essay contest you can’t seem to commit to. Whatever it is, what you’re avoiding has already been chosen on some deeper level of your consciousness.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to write, the simple answer is to write about what you’re avoiding writing about!
And, if there isn’t a specific project or topic on your side-burner, instead, ask yourself what you may be avoiding in your life nowadays, beyond your writing. Maybe there’s a tough-love admission about how you’ve really been feeling lately, or a silly argument with a friend that’s replaying in your mind.
The point is to examine what you’re avoiding, because the nature of avoiding it implies that it matters to you, and — since you’ve already chosen it, deep down — you’ll need to eventually choose it fully to move toward it.
In the act of writing, you may yet discover why you’ve been avoiding it.
Exploring your inner landscape on paper can help you illuminate shadows behaviors, habits, worries, fears and other natural machinations of the mind — the sneaky stuff that causes resistance in writing, creating and doing. The healthier the rapport between you and your true self, the easier it becomes to choose your choices fully.
Avoidance will show you the way
Asking yourself “What have I been avoiding lately?” is a simple question, and it’s a fast method for pinpointing a writing topic that’s near to the experience you’re living in the moment.
Better yet, the question produces a personal, meaningful inquiry that may help you better understand what you’re resisting and why you’re resisting it.
Whether you’re resisting a book topic, a blog post, submitting an essay to a contest, or avoiding something un-writing-related altogether, you can use your writing as a process for better understanding.
Here are two simple scripts you can use to tap what you’ve been avoiding lately:
- “If I’m being really honest with myself, what I’ve been avoiding lately has been ________. I’ve probably been avoiding it ever since ________.”
- “Where is my avoidance coming from? My go-to excuse for not doing it has been __________. But maybe I’m actually resisting it because ________.”
There is something really powerful that begins to happen when we write through the very questions, topics and struggles that inspire more self-knowledge.
First and foremost, we find something specific to write about!
Better yet, when we use our writing to confront the topic of “what we’ve been avoiding lately,” our writing becomes a tool even more meaningful than for just telling stories.
When we write about topics that explore the journey of life as we live it, we get to know ourselves better and better.
Writing becomes an aid for our own healing, self-actualization and pursuit of happiness.