What the things I repeat tell me about my focus

As a writer and someone who writes about writing (insert obligatory “dancing about architecture”-type comment here), there are two things that I tend to worry about more often than all the other things I worry about: repetition and focus.

This applies to my fiction writing as well as whatever half-baked principles and ideas about writing I may spout off. (Just kidding; all my ideas are fully baked.) Case in point: in one of my fiction workshops in graduate school, when my story was up for discussion, a friend of mine* started off by saying “this has the trifecta of a Jeffrey Ricker story: love, longing, and loss.” As the discussion went on, I missed a few things because I kept wondering, wait, is this story a retread? Am I just writing the same thing over and over?

It was a different story from all the others I’d submitted that year—different characters, plots, settings—but as I mentally scrolled through my pile of stories for that class, it was true. I was writing about people longing for other people, losing other people, and loving and unloving other people.

Love, longing, loss. Surely there’s more to the world than that, isn’t there? On the other hand, those three things count for a lot, don’t they?

When I sit down to write a blog entry or a letter to you about writing—about the things I think about when it comes to writing—at some point in the process I usually flip back through the last few entries/letters I’ve written to confirm that I’m not rewriting the same thing I sent a month or three months (or six months) earlier. And sometimes, while it’s not word for word the same letter I sent, the topics and the points are… well, familiar.

photo by Matthew Hamilton, Unsplash

I could look at this as a failing of my memory, the same way as when I pick up a book and it takes me twenty pages until I think hey, haven’t I read this before? That doesn’t always mean I stop reading, though.

So, instead of just taking it as a memory lapse, I also take it as a sign, an arrow pointing to the things that matter to me, the things that confuse me, and the things that make me go I wonder…

That repetition leads me to another realization, one that has to do less with what I write about and more to do with the genres I write in. Some writers, for instance, you think of them first and foremost as a mystery writer, or a YA writer, or a horror writer. I’ve landed in all three of those genres at one time or another, along with contemporary literary, speculative fiction, fantasy, and—ahem—naughty stuff. (Don’t read any of those, Mom.) Going back to that same fiction workshop in grad school, where I submitted a science fiction piece, a contemporary piece, and a humorous one, among others, someone** described me as a “genre chameleon.” In contrast, a lot of my peers were focusing really strongly on certain themes, plots, or milieus (ooh, twenty-five cent word). I began to wonder, do I lack focus? By shifting among genres, am I making it hard for readers to follow me?

In worrying about these two things, though, I figured something out: those things I repeat? Those are my focus.

So, I’m going to keep repeating myself, I think, until I figure out what I’m trying to understand. Let me know what you find yourself repeating, returning to, revisiting. Love, longing, and loss are all pretty high up on my list, and figuring them out could take a while. I can think of worse ways to spend a life, you know?

*Hi, Taylor!+

+He doesn’t read this, actually. But still, hi, Taylor!

**Hi again, Taylor!

2 thoughts on “What the things I repeat tell me about my focus

  1. I really like this post. I know what you mean about repeating yourself, but I think it’s completely okay to do so, because as you said, it alerts you to what’s important to you and what you’re still navigating in your own mind and heart. Perhaps this repetition is a good thing, because the things you feel strongest about are the things you will write the strongest as well. As for me, I recently realized that I frequently write about loneliness.

    • Exactly! I think it also explains those stories that seem to come out of nowhere almost fully formed. They’re usually about something I’ve puzzled over in multiple stories before them.

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