When the writer V. S. Naipaul visited his native Trinidad in 1990, a reporter asked him to comment on progress in his island homeland. Naipaul declined to respond. The question was too immense to answer briefly, he said; it was "what my life's work is about." This was true. In his novels, nonfiction books, essays, and journalism, Naipaul has examined life in the post-colonial world.

Naipaul knew he would be a writer well before he knew what he would write. When he left Trinidad in 1950 to attend Oxford University on a scholarship, he saw himself as a future Somerset Maugham--elegant, worldly, and writing from a British sensibility. His efforts to be such a writer brought him disappointment, however, because this was not who he was. Not until five years later, after he had left Oxford and begun to make his way in the world, did Naipaul experience an illumination "of what my material as a writer might be." He explained in his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival that he began to write quickly and simply about the street in Port of Spain where he grew up and the characters who inhabited it. "I defined myself," he reflected, "and saw that my subject was not my sensibility, my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself...."

Discovering his or her great subject is a key step in every writer's career. For some lucky writers, the urge to write and recognition of the subject are one and the same. For Sy Montgomery, the author of Birdology and other books on the natural world, writing was always associated with her love of animals. She wanted to write so that she could write about them. I would place Jane Austen into this category as well, because she was writing humorous stories featuring the English gentry as a child.

More of us stumble like Naipaul, though, or like Walt Whitman, who had dabbled in journalism before he heard Emerson assert that the United States would produce a great poet, that, "The genius of poetry is here." Emerson's words set Whitman's mind simmering, and he became that poet, the great celebrator of nineteenth-century America.

I, too, stumbled for a while. I was grown up, working as a writer and editor in the health field, and the mother of a ten-year-old son when it occurred to me that I might write about our shared culture and history. I had my epiphany while visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.  I started on this course and never turned back. It felt too right.


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