Write It Sideways

Finding Extraordinary Writing in an Ordinary Life

Today’s post is written by regular contributor, Susan Bearman

extraordinary (adj.) —

  1. Beyond what is ordinary or usual.
  2. Highly exceptional; remarkable.
  3. Employed or used for a special service, function, or occasion.

Beyond What is Ordinary or Usual

It took me a long time to feel worthy of the title ‘writer.’ I thought you had to lead an extraordinary life to have important stories to tell, and my life seemed completely ordinary: two loving parents who stayed married to each other; no major illness or tragedy; four loving grandparents, and even four great grandparents who lived long enough for me to get to know them. I lived in the Midwest; I went to college, got a job, got married, had children. What stories did I have to tell leading such an ordinary life?

Not all extraordinary writers have led extraordinary lives. Charles Dickens worked at a shoe blacking factory to help support the family, pasting labels on boxes. F. Scott Fitzgerald joined the army when he was put on academic probation at Princeton. J.M. Barrie started his career like many of us, as a poor freelancer. Pretty ordinary stuff.

I’ve come to understand that extraordinary doesn’t exist without ordinary. And I’ve come to believe that it’s a writer’s job to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to see the ordinary through the eyes of an artist and reflect the extraordinary back to our readers.

Think of some of the most famous first lines in literary history and you will see how these gifted writers have taken us to beyond what is ordinary:

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”

Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Barrie, Peter Pan: “All children, except one, grow up.”

Not a single extraordinary word in the lot, yet look what these writers have done—where they have taken us with these few ordinary words.

Highly Exceptional; Remarkable

So we know that extraordinary writers don’t necessarily lead extraordinary lives. And they use perfectly ordinary words in their work. It’s how they use those words that is highly exceptional. That’s our job—to choose among the roughly quarter million English words available to us and to arrange them in a way that is uniquely our own, yet universally understood.

Writers are highly exceptional, remarkable people. You wouldn’t know it to look at us. From the outside, we’re a rather ordinary bunch. But on the inside, we’re writing all the time. We can’t help ourselves. Everything is fodder.

“When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen.” — Samuel Lover

Slackers need not apply. You can’t be a lazy writer and expect success. It’s butt in chair or you won’t get anywhere. But it’s also important to remember that even when we’re not writing, we are. Our brains keep working when we do the laundry or watch our kids play soccer or take a shower. Hemingway famously always stopped writing for the day in mid-sentence, so his mind would have something to work on between sessions:

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time.”

That’s a great strategy. Another is to become a curator of wonderful writing. Highlight and keep track of every magnificent phrase, sentence, metaphor, or description that you read. One of my favorite features on my new e-reader is the ability to highlight text and annotate as I go. My mother was a librarian, so I still find it impossible to mark up a real book, but e-books are fair game.

Sometimes, just the physical act of retyping a great piece of work can be inspirational. I know many writers who type great lines, whole chapters, even entire novels by their favorite authors just to feel the greatness flow from their eyes through their brains and out their fingers. (It might be time to note that synonyms for “exceptional” include: aberrant, abnormal, anomalous, atypical, deviant, irregular, odd, peculiar, strange, and unusual. Most of us writers are some of those things, as well.)

Work hard and do great work. When you’re not working, play hard and live life to the fullest. Surround yourself with interesting people and enrich your life with all kinds of experiences, big and small, prosaic and profound. Give back. Be generous. Put yourself out there. Embrace change. Then come back and write with renewed spirit and vigor.

Employed or Used for a Special Service, Function, or Occasion

Use your tools—those 250,000 words—to their very best advantage. Revise, refine, and polish them. Discover new metaphors that will etch a specific image in the mind of your reader. The poet Robert Burns wrote “My love is like a red, red rose.” It’s a beautiful simile, but it belongs to him. Your literary love must be like something else, because, thanks to Burns and many others, the bloom is off that particular rose. It has become a cliché and you can do better.

Uncover the universal truth buried deep within the lives of your characters and let your readers recognize and feel everything your character is feeling. Even (or perhaps especially) when writing science fiction, it’s important to create a world that we humans can understand.

“Science-fiction is the law-abiding citizen of imaginative literature, obeying the rules, be they physical, social, or psychological, keeping regular hours, eating punctual meals; predictable, certain, sure.” — Ray Bradbury

Find the telling detail. What’s a telling detail? It’s the one seemingly ordinary, but very specific thing that will render your characters remarkable in the eyes of your readers. For example, in chapter 4 of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald introduces a minor character named Meyer Wolfsheim, who is lunching with Gatsby and the narrator, Nick:

“I see you’re looking at my cuff buttons.” I hadn’t been looking at them, but I did now.

They were composed of oddly familiar pieces of ivory.

“Finest specimens of human molars,” he informed me.

We know, in just two lines of dialogue, that Meyer Wolfsheim is no ordinary businessman. A man who would wear human molars as cuff links has an edge—there is definitely something dangerous about him. Work to find the telling detail in all your characters, not just your main character, but for all the beings who inhabit your story. Search your imagination until you find the thing that would make us recognize any one of your characters walking down the street.

Be Extraordinary

One of the most famous pieces of writing advice is to write what you know. Don’t be afraid of the ordinary in your life, and don’t discount it. A recent speaker at my writing group, John S. O’Conner, said: “Get a little bit of distance from yourself to help you find the extraordinary. We reduce our lives in so many ways.”

There is greatness in the everyday. It takes the artist within us transform the ordinary pieces of life into truth and beauty. It’s that simple. It’s that extraordinary.