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What Is a Writer’s “Material”?

Writers return again and again to certain themes, situations, or subjects

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away called YOUTH, I sat at a gun-metal-gray desk, awaiting a verdict on my Master’s thesis. This was May, 1975, roughly two years after my husband’s death, and my thesis was a novella entitled That’s Who I Am. The plot–if there even was one–centered on a woman’s encounters with her roommates in a maternity ward. As most early works of fiction inevitably are, the novella was autobiographical.

bound copy of a master's thesis

A bound copy of my Master’s thesis, a novella entitled THAT’S WHO I AM, resides in the archives of San Francisco State’s library.

I had placed my magnum opus in my advisor’s faculty cubbyhole a month before. It was May. I was right up against the deadline for a June graduation, and I needed to get a job.

An Advisor’s Opinion

As I sat watching Wright Morris fiddle with his mustache, I had a sense of mounting dread. He’d make me do another revision. Or, I’d have to type the whole darned thing again! In the worst case, he’d tell me the novella sucked and that I should start over. (He’d already told me to throw out a half-completed manuscript and start afresh, so I had reason to be fearful.)

Wright Morris

Wright Morris was the winner of the National Book Award and the American Book Award. He taught Creative Writing at San Francisco State from 1963 to 1975. I was one of his last students.

Morris placed a heavy palm on the ream of paper. His chair creaked back. Then, he sighed, unwrapped a lemon drop, and popped it in his mouth. “Mrs. MacDonald,” he said, preparing to end the torture, “you are very young. One day you will discover your subject matter.”

I sat in stunned silence. “Do I have to start over–again?”

“No,” he said, patting the tome. “This is okay. The writing’s good. Your characters come alive.”

“Will you approve it?”

“Yes, yes, it’s fine.” He pushed the manuscript across the desk. “What I’m talking about is your long-term career. Every writer has her own material.”

“What, exactly, do you mean by ‘material’?” I said.

“The people or settings or situations that bubble up from your subconscious. The ‘material’ you can’t let go of and must return to again and again. The material that comes into your writing when you least expect it.”

“What is your ‘material’?” I asked.

“Nebraska,” he said. “Big skies, freight trains, and a certain kind of vagabond childhood. As you can see, that would not be your material.”

I didn’t see it at all. I had no idea what he was talking about.

This index card summarized Wright Morris’s thoughts about my novella and about issues that needed to be addressed before the manuscript was publishable.

As he and I discussed the fine points of That’s Who I Am, I understood that he wasn’t exactly blessing the book with his imprimatur. The book wasn’t horrible; it was good enough to satisfy requirements of the degree; but, it needed work before I sent it to an agent.

Exhausted and hugging the manuscript to my breast, I left his office. Driving back to Palo Alto and my four young children, I pondered what he’d meant by “my material.”

My “Material”

Fifty years later, I know what my “material” is. Surrender: A Memoir of Nature, Nurture, and Love returns to the subject matter of that early novella–That’s Who I Am. In both books the protagonists–me, or a thinly disguised version thereof–seek to understand the nature of identity and motherhood.


three paperback copies of Surrender

SURRENDER circles back to themes found in my early novella.

Surrender is a book I could not have written when I was young. I had no perspective on the pea under the pile of mattresses–the obsession that is always there, disturbing sleep, appearing in dreams, and bubbling up in stories.

But, Wright Morris was correct. My “material” is not Nebraska. My “material” has to do with identity, adoption, and motherhood. It has to do with the life journey of a woman, which is different from the life journey of a man.

Those obsessions have been there from the early days of my life as a writer, and I can finally say, This is what I’ve been trying to get at all along.

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