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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Finding the Story in the Every Day

Everyone's heard that old bit of writing wisdom 'write what you know.' And sometimes it seems like there are writers who have success doing just that very thing, whether it's Jack Kerouac writing about life On the Road, or the more recent success of Isabel Kaplan, a youngster writing about growing up in Los Angeles' Hancock Park. 'Write what you know' (let's call it WWYK for the purposes of this post) has been a successful writing guide for a very, very long time.

So you think to yourself, well hey, it worked for them, why not for me?

But then you sit down in front of your blank page and think... uh oh - my life is totally boring.

What do you do? How do you make WWYK work for you?

1. Don't Be A Strict Constructionist

If you try to take WWYK too literally, you'll most likely bump up against the 'my life is mundane and boring' problem - that is unless you're currently traversing the globe in a hot air balloon or crossing sub-Saharan Africa on foot. Instead, break apart your biography for potential elements of a story - the setting of your childhood, the characters of your family, the emotional tone of your youth - and mine them for starting points or center pieces of your story. Sometimes a story is more about how something felt than what happened.

2. Remember Your Anecdotes

Remember that time you went on that horrible first date? Or the day your older brother tried to teach you to drive? Or that time you ended up in the emergency room? Your life is full of stories, and if you think about it, you probably have quite a few of these on rotation for cocktail parties. Well they're not just for cocktail parties anymore. Ask yourself what makes this a story that you like to tell? What about it do you think people find interesting, humorous, compelling? Answer that and you may have somewhere to start.

3. Friends are Fun

Listen to people. Listen. Listen. Listen. You're not the only one with stories, buddy, and sometimes listening to other people's woes and triumphs can inspire your own work, and help you add a little bit more K to your WWYK. (That's "Know" for those of you having trouble following along at home.)

4. Jump Off Into the Sky

Jane Austen's novels were chock full of romance and happy endings, even if she never got a happy ending of her own. What she did know was about people, family, and social conventions. She used what she knew as a foundation to leap off into the world of dreams, fantasy and in particular romance. Don't be afraid to start with your feet on the ground (or page as it were) and then let yourself dream up the rest.

5. Find the Story in Your Every Day

It's really simple: the mundane to you may not be the mundane to everyone. Don't be blind to the stories in your every day life. Think about interesting moments, interesting things you see, interesting things you hear. Try thinking small, and working your way to big. Remember: it only takes a small seed from which a very big story can grow.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting this here. I'm at a very tricky spot in a project right now, and this reminded me it's not only okay, but necessary to go back to basics.

Pilfered one of my own dreams to fix a rough patch in a chapter. Kudos to thieving from the personal life.

stu said...

All good advice. Though to what you know, I'd probably also add what really interests you, even if you don't necessarily know it that well now, if only because of the passion it adds to the writing.