One of the good things about teaching creative writing for the Open University is that I have permanently at my elbow one of the best and most comprehensive writing-courses-in-a-book, Linda Anderson and Derek Neale's Creative Writing, which is the coursebook for A215. But it was a student who mentioned something that the poet W. N. Herbert says, in his chapter on "Theme":
There may be a set of subjects we write about which, on examination, share an underlying theme. Like voice, this is better discovered than imposed, but this does not preclude the search. The attempt to address large issues or grand abstractions often occurs when a writer has little idea of what they write well about.
I've talked before about how we tend to assume that first we get an idea, and then we bring our craft and talent to bear on it, and use them work it out into a story. And I went on to think about how it might be a good idea to think sometimes in reverse: working out what ideas and kinds of stories your particular capacities are most suited to, and writing them. What gets your best writing out of you, in other words? One of the reasons I ended up putting the novel before the WIP in a drawer is that I had deliberately given myself a kind of story which didn't play to my known strengths. I wanted to do it, and it was very good for me: I learnt a huge amount, as you always do when you set yourself a challenge, and one thing I learnt is that the story hadn't allowed me to do some of the things I'm best at. In the long term, by taking more such risks risk I shall learn to write well what that kind of story needs, stretching both my repertoire, and my toolkit. In the short term, I couldn't make the novel work. But it was worth it, for everything I learnt.
So this relationship between what you want to write, and what you write best about, isn't straightforward. My own experience confirms what Herbert says: new writers and unconfident writers, paradoxically, seem to gravitate towards... well at one evening of short fiction readings, nine out of the ten stories read were centrally, chiefly, about death. And competitions sifters say the same. I used to think crossly that it was just a cheap thrill - some instant gravitas - but I'm a slightly nicer person these days. I think it's very natural: in death, at least, we know there's something that makes us feel strongly. The big issues and the grand abstractions that hover above our daily experience are universal and important, and so we can trust them to get a Proper Piece of Writing out of us. The problem is, of course, that because these large terrors and joys are easily awakened in ourselves and each other, it's easy to write them in a bland and generalised way, and still give the impression that the piece is working: the generalities you write evoke (you hope) the specifics in the reader. But they may not, because none of us live life in generalities, but in specifics.
The real definition, I'd suggest, of a proper piece of writing - a piece of writing worth doing - is one which is as individual as you are: a piece which only you could have written, written as only you could have written it. Which probably does mean coming to terms with the things you spend most time in real life thinking about, as I was trying to in Under the Bugle-beaded Bonnet. The chances are it's those things which will get your best writing out of you. And they might not be a grand abstraction, and might not be about Death: it might be about toddlers or tree-felling or canalboats or perfume or a particular ghost village in Northumbria or women who are charming and unreliable or men who can't love their mothers.... And, of course, once you are centring down on what concerns you most nearly and interests you most greatly, you start pulling the threads apart to see what these things are really made of. And because what you find is individual - complex, particular, nuanced - you start trying to find exactly the right words to convey those specifics properly. They're your specifics, so the reader finds themself in touch with a live, individual experience. Those specifics bring the underlying generalities alive again in a way they never could be if they'd been expressed directly.
So this isn't a plea for writers to Write What You Know - heaven forbid! - nor to think they're not entitled to write about The Human Condition if they're not Montaigne or Dickens. It's actually about learning to trust yourself. What you're writing about may seem small to you, or particular, or lacking in gravitas. But if you are really drilling down to find the truth of it and writing that truth as well as you possibly can, then it will be something worth saying. The truth - the real truth - of anything, is always worth saying.