Finding a Writing Topic

I expect to receive a book in the mail tomorrow. It’s a used copy of After Montaigne, a collection of essays by contemporary writers, each of whom takes as inspiration one of Montaigne’s essays and writes something on the theme of that essay. I’m looking forward to reading the essays, not just because I expect to enjoy the reading. I’m also hoping to find some inspiration for my own writing.

It’s a commonplace that writers begin as readers. I’ve read many books and essays, and I’m happy to have the time in retirement to read even more. But I still find it difficult to write. One of he biggest challenges – perhaps the biggest challenge – I face in writing is settling on a topic to write about. Even in graduate school, when it came time to write my dissertation, I had just one idea for a topic – fortunately for me, it worked. I’m not sure what I would have written about if that had fallen through. I suppose I would have thought of something, but I’m glad I didn’t have to try.

I’m approaching the one-year anniversary of starting this blog. As I look back on the year, I’m wishing that I had done more with it. On 1 January 2023 I posted my first entry, expressing my hope that writing in this (somewhat) public place would help me to sort out what I’m thinking. I referred there to something my teacher said in the preface to his published notebooks: “Just as thinking, in my case, has always meant trying to think with the minds of others as well as my own (and therefore reading), so has it also always meant writing, for myself as well as others. Why? Well, because ‘writing it out so I can read it’ is the only means I’ve ever found by which I could be at all sure about what I wanted to think and whether I could possibly be right in thinking it” (Schubert M. Ogden, Notebooks, p. xi).

One thing I didn’t say in that first post is that thinking about Schubert’s comment was a large part of what led me several years ago to write regularly in a personal journal. I’d written journals off and on through the years, but I began writing much more regularly about 5 years ago and I very rarely miss a day now. Last January I hoped that I could bring that regular writing into this public space.

But – as the list of entries makes clear – I’ve struggled to do that. And, as I said above, a big part of that struggle is simply finding a place to begin. So I’m looking forward to reading those essays – both to see how each of the essayists builds on or responds to Montaigne’s and to ponder just how I might move from something that I read to something that I write. Perhaps I’ll start with Montaigne as well – I think there are no more than a couple dozen essays in the book, and I know that Montaigne wrote many more essays than that.