As an old proverb goes, there are no boring subjects, only boring writers. The idea is that with enough intelligence and skill, any writer can make any topic compelling.
I’ve shared that principle with young writing students, novices who are often waiting for some vivid life event that might make an interesting story. But as I tell beginners, one doesn’t have to parachute from an airplane, escape a burning building or apprehend a jewel thief to have something to say. Even small moments can reveal an insight worth getting on paper.
In my own days as a new writing student, a classmate decided to write about how she made her weekly shopping list. The premise seemed like a snoozer. Who would want to hear about someone scribbling “tomatoes,” “milk” and “bread” before heading to the supermarket?
But when my fellow student read her essay aloud, it proved the best work of the semester. She wrote about her grocery list as a way of introducing each member of her family. The items on the list pointed to what her husband and each child routinely needed or desired, a window into who they were.
The list also suggested that its author, juggling parenthood and a midlife return to college, was acutely aware of what she wanted to give each loved one under her roof. Every element of a good story — compelling characters, an engaging narrator, an interesting point of view — had gathered around a shopping list, an ostensibly boring topic made beautiful.
All of this came to mind a few weeks ago with the death of Donald Hall, the New England author, at age 89. When he was physically active, Hall often wrote about his ambles around his ancestral farm and his travels to faraway places. In his final years, often alone after the death of his wife, Hall found himself mostly confined by declining health to a chair by the window. There didn’t seem much of a story in that.
But with nothing else to do, Hall sharpened his observation of the landscape and seasons just beyond the living room sill. The resulting essay, “Out the Window,” was published in The New Yorker and inspired a National Public Radio interview, too.
Hall’s essay is many things, but it’s primarily a hymn to paying attention, which is something most of us have forgotten to do. He sees what other people are too busy to notice. “Flowers by turn rise and fall all summer — foxglove, sweet alyssum, bee balm,” he tells readers. “I watch two wild turkeys gobble as they strut stiffly up the slope toward the barn.”
I’ve been thinking about Hall as the year turns toward autumn, then the hectic holidays. Maybe there’s wisdom in choosing for a few moments to embrace what Hall was forced to do, then found a source of grace: looking out the window, to see what creation has wrought.