Alex Clark-McGlenn

The “why” of writing is closely linked with subject matter–a more complex concept than genre, plot, or character. Subject matter is the deep meaning of a writer’s work. It is the piece of writing that reveals the insight each writer has of a profound, more meaningful human experience. To understand why I write, I first had to understand my subject matter, and I wrote for years without a clear understanding of why. 

The reason I write came to me through a short story I wrote some years ago titled, “The Lost Doll.” This piece spawned from an account I read of a Polish girl who lived in Paris in 1942, the year in which the French police colluded with the Nazi’s to remove all non-French Jews from the city. The woman (who was Jewish and just a little girl at the time) told the story of how she was taken from her home; how a French police officer took her doll away.

This goes against the old adage of, “write what you know,” a rule I’ve found bunk. I write what I don’t know. What would I learn, otherwise? I couldn’t understand that man, that French police officer, so I wrote myself into an understanding of him. What, I asked myself, could this man have gained from such a cruel act? And I answered myself: the little girl’s doll was a symbol of comfort, but the circumstances did not demand comfort, and for this police officer they demanded cruelty. His actions were rooted in survivalism, the officer’s own will to live on, to keep living, no matter the cost–even at the price of his empathy and humanity.

For me, writing fiction is a deep process of empathy. If I can empathize with a character I don’t understand I can gain insights into lives I could not have known any other way. The process of writing fiction is an existential inquiry for me. It allows me to explore why people do what they do, how people justify their actions. Serious Fiction–and this term is as likely found in genre as in the literary–always helps the writer, as much as the reader, understand the human experience in new and unexpected ways.

My writing is an exploration into the dark well of human experience. The water, first, shadowed with uncertainty, gives way through drafts and revision to understanding, like a sliver of the moon overhead, and then a glimpse of my own reflection on the stagnant surface.

Tags: