Most writers have a territory they explore for a time—perhaps an entire career. It is the theme, subject, or question that predominates their work. It might be a belief they hold—love triumphs over all, everyone lies—and it might appear as a question, not an assertion. In essence, they become specialists, like the artist Giorgio Morandi, who painted the same collection of bottles and boxes in study after study. This kind of revisiting makes possible a remarkable intensity of observation, which in turn can elevate work to a higher plane. What many writers find is that intense contemplation of a single theme gives a freshness and individuality to each story even when the subjects are similar. There is no shortage of writers whose work can be described this way.
Amy Hempel once said that the territory of all her early stories was loss and, indeed, her most famous short story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," is about two college girlfriends, one of whom is dying. Why select loss as a territory? Because, as Hempel makes clear, grief unites us.
John Cheever could be said to have written obsessively about suburban alcoholics. John Updike explored marital strife again and again. Alice Mattison once said that her territory changed after a decade of writing, and that at some point, writers tend to get done with a particular subject. It makes sense that after a thorough exploration a writer would set off for someplace new. Ask yourself whether you have a territory. What subject shows up in your work again and again? Is it time to break out? Is it possible you're done?
Sometimes a turf is a setting. Scott Russell Sanders writes about growing up near an army arsenal where old bombs were stored. He claimed his territory in his book, The Paradise of Bombs.
Sometimes the territory is a time, as it can be for historical novelists. Territory can be a form or an element that seems to show up in every story. The early works of John Irving, for example, seemed to invariably include wrestling.
Thinking about your work in terms of territory can give you a linking element in your essays or short story collection or allow you to recognize what a story you are struggling with is really about. I thought for many years my territory was longing. Then I looked more closely and saw that it was, in reality, abiding love.
Praise for The Story Within:
- Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin says, "This book will make you a better writer."
- Cynthia Gorney, U.C. Berkeley, says The Story Within is "eloquent, no-nonsense, inspirational, funny and loaded with truly practical ideas."
- Brian Doyle, of Portland Magazine, calls Story "blunt, witty, relentlessly honest, immensely useful and startlingly thorough."