Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nothing Ever Happens to Me: A Writer's Lament

Write what you know: it's one of the most harped upon aphorisms when it comes to writing. And as a result, I sometimes feel I should restrict myself to writing kids' stories, or fantasy, or very soft sci-fi. In fantasy worlds, the "what you know" is all in one's head. No risk of getting in over one's head.

Because...in the real world, how can I compete? I've had a boring, peaceful life, really. I come from a big but fairly average middle class family, my parents got along very well, no one had any major vices or addictions, we had no serious long-term illnesses or family skeletons, I was home-schooled for much of my education and therefore missed out on high school drama, I've never been to college, never been drunk out of my mind at a bar, never committed any crime worse than speeding on my way to church, wouldn't have a clue how to obtain illicit drugs or pull off any grand larceny - well, you get the idea.

And sometimes I think, what business do I have writing? So many of the books out there are filled with experiences I can't even begin to fathom.

But then again, not only do we all have extraordinary moments in our lives, but many of the ordinary moments in our own lives are far outside the ordinary for others. Not only that, but good writing is able to take this one step further, and find the extraordinary even within the ordinary.

So I've been daydreaming. Remembering.

I remember speeding down the hill on a steel-runnered sled, over and over, sometimes deep into the twilight hours with our runners striking sparks wherever ground was exposed, and the cold making my face so stiff I smiled just for the way it felt to smile. I carry the memory of rolling down a grassy hill, spotted with dandelions - and last year's cow pies, dried now to clean grassy pucks we could pick up and throw around to gross each other out. I remember hunting garter snakes on sleepy summer afternoons when the air was heavy with bees' buzzing and humidity. I remember turning over stones and old boards, and startling the living daylights out of myself when I did find a snake. I remember picking raspberries in the big field behind our house, pushing one inch further and one inch further after the really big berries, until there wasn't a bit of my legs left unscathed by those darned prickers.

I remember a warm May night in Lourdes, France, when for a few hours, I walked hand in hand with a beautiful Italian boy who spoke as little English as I did Italian; and before that, another night in Biloxi, Mississippi, where I fell in love with a rather nerdy English guy, and -

One night in Mississippi....

I know what it's like to watch the sun come up behind the Bavarian Alps on a frosty day in early spring. And I've seen the sun go down in a blaze of glory behind the evergreens on a shimmering night in the Pacific Northwest with the temperatures a record breaking three digits.

I know of a spot in Monroe, New Hampshire where every Friday night, people from all walks of life - characters all - cram into a big old work shed to play music until the wee hours of the morning. I've been there nights when it was too crowded to get inside, and I stood talking with other outcasts in the cool, sweet night air, with music spilling out of the windows and the sky so clear the whole of it glowed: stars beyond stars beyond stars.

And, of course, there are the more everyday things: a baby's smile, the smell of chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven, daffodils blooming year after year, the herd of corgis next door going completely bonkers because they see a bird, or a leaf, or hear me slam the oven door....

All of these memories and thousands more I carry with me. There are stories in them for the seeking.

There are many stories I could never write. I could never write gritty crime novels, for example, at least not without a major life change and/or a tremendous amount of research. But maybe - just maybe - I can be a writer all the same. It is, I would say, all about not only knowing your limitations, not only accepting them, but embracing them: digging deep into what you have seen and heard and felt, seizing on those things that are beautiful and true and all too often overlooked. I may only be able to write about the everyday, but perhaps I can be the one who makes someone out there stop and see those everyday things for the first time in a long while.

A toast: to the ordinary. Long may it live.


Strikethru said...

Lovely post. I struggle with the same questions.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I often feel just as you do as I lived a similar, average life. Your little reminders made me realize I too have had so many wonderful memories that touched my heart and yes, I do have things to write.

Thank you for a wake up just as i am entering a new door that openned in my life.

Tony Miller

rino said...

great post. There's a lot more mileage to the idea that writing is remembering (as illustrated very well above), than just 'write what you know'. Actually, there's a whole bunch of generic tips and instructions banded about in creative writing classes and books which don't actually help much. They might help to weed out or guide the untalented for a minute, but great writers don't adhere to many rules beyond what they know works. Balzac breaks the rule 'show, don't tell' ALL the time. And also, when it comes to 'write from experience' how does that apply to a fantasy writer like Tolkien, who concocted all these worlds, languages, fantastic experiences in his head? Surely he didn't experience them literally. It's a stupid rule which discounts imagination - and imagination is much bigger than literal experience.
cheers, rino

Wordherder said...

As a 48-year old person who has made a living with words for a long time, I'm going to be the curmudgeon here. I've been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, so here goes. Stop whining. Get out and do something. Do some research. Learn something. Pick a topic you're passionate about and become the expert on it. You don't have to get drunk on your butt to be a writer. You don't have to do a whole lot of things to be a writer. But one thing you absolutely have to do is get your ass in the chair and write. Butt to seat, fingers to keyboard. Relentlessly. And if you're stuck, go learn something. Go watch an expert do something. Watch the best brick mason in your town lay bricks. Go to a fire scene and watch the firefighters. Spend a night in an emergency room. Go down to the bus station and spend a day watching folk come and go. Listen. Watch. Read. Do. Stop whining and write. Stop whining and get something to write about. Something to write about doesn't just come and grab you. Read Cornelius Ryan's book on D-Day, "The Longest Day." Thousands of interviews; he had 7,000 books on World War II; he talked to veterans for months; he had been a war correspondent. And that last part is important but all of the research and work that created that book came AFTER the war. It was for the 15th anniversary of D-Day. So get your butt in the seat and write. Get your ears open, your eyes open, your mind open. There are a million excuses about what you don't have anything to write about. Hell, I just did you a favor and now you can write about that jerk who just said you need to stop whining.

Little Flower Petals said...

Wordherder, I'm afraid my point went over your head (or under your nose, as the case may be). This wasn't a whine. Rather the opposite. The title is tongue-in-cheek.

Learning and experiencing new things is of course a good idea, for writers and everyone else, and you offer some good tips there. I thank you for that. But my point is that all of us--no matter how "boring" our lives have been--have a unique depth of knowledge and experience to draw from, whether we realize it or not. All too often we fail to see what we have lived and what we know, because we're too busy looking at other people's lives and saying, "But I haven't--"

Wordherder said...

No, I got it. Believe me, I got it. No worries there about missing the wisdom therein. Transitions are your friends. Really, they are. Look, my point is this. Write, damn it. Write something. Don't write about writing. Don't write about writing about writing. Write. This is like all of the bands in the '70s that made records about what it's like to be a rock star. I don't give a rat's ass about what it's like to be a rock star--it's something most of us will never be and the first couple of songs are kinda interesting but then enough already. The last part of your blog was writing. The first two paragraphs were totally unnecessary. You actually had something to say and a pair of scissors would have been a useful tool on this one. But that's how you learn to write. You write. Then some jerk like me comes along and points something out. So then you write some more. You CAN write by the way. So do it. Just write. Just say something. And, say something that is all yours and not been said by a thousand other people or you risk becoming a bad Bob Seger album.

Little Flower Petals said...

I don't post everything I write on this blog. I don't post *most* of what I write on this blog. It's primarily an open journal, and as such, it's informal and unpolished and doesn't really try to be anything more most of the time. I'm not familiar with Bob Seger (before my time, I guess), but if you wanted to compare this to the music world, it'd be the backstage commiserating about life on the road and the sharing of bits of works in progress, not a final recording or concert. Criticizing it as though it was a final product (and my only product) doesn't really work.

If most of my posts lately have been about writing, it's because I'm writing a ton, and the process is on my mind a lot. I overanalyze. It's what I do. And more than likely the analyzation is something I should keep to myself. I'll leave the posts up, but try to refrain from bothering people with too many mundane thoughts in future.