When Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

Writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction can give many reasons why they keep coming back to these kinds of books.

It’s exciting. It makes you think. It introduces extraordinary ideas, characters, and places that you could never encounter in the real world. It’s ‘an escape.’

…Is it, really? For it has been said, “Nothing is original”, “write what you know”, and other time-tested phrases. Can anything that is fantastical really be called fantastical, when “every story has already been told” (Anna Quindlen) and we’re all frantically trying to write what we know (and wonder how this can be made interesting)?

Of course, as experienced writers will tell you, “write what you know” is a matter of debate. The inner meanings of this well-known phrase have been taken apart in creative writing classes, writing workshops and groups, and by authors everywhere practically since the thing made its first circle around.

Writer’s Zoe Heller and Mohsin Hamid discussed this very debate in question in a March New York Times report earlier this year. I personally like how Heller quickly makes the distinction that to write what you know does not mean that you have to literally write what you know. No one wants to know the exact details of your life – when you wake up, when you picked your nose, what argument you had with your brother yesterday afternoon…

Oh, wait. Isn’t that what reality TV is all about? What about the film The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey as an ordinary man who discovers that his whole life is being filmed as a TV show to entertain the masses? Those are instances of the ordinary, day-to-day life being put literally, detail by detail, into a story – and they’re even interesting!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that writing is not as limited as we think. It is not limited by a little idea that the ordinary is boring, as my child self used to think, or that we can only write about something or someone that we have directly experienced. That is appealing though; some people focus on what is called ‘creative nonfiction’ just because of how fun and interesting they find it to write about their direct experiences.

I have not done much creative nonfiction, myself. Creative NF people out there, any comments? Is it easy? It seems like it would be. Then again, perhaps it is even more difficult to write than creative fiction. After all, as Ralph Keyes points out in his excellent book The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, one of the reasons writing can induce crippling fear is because it forces you to reveal your very self, your core, those things which frighten, gladden, sadden and repulse you…and this is what makes the writing good. So imagine if, instead of being able to escape reality a little bit by writing fiction, which makes it less obvious what part or character is close to your heart…instead, you’re writing in the creative nonfiction category, and everyone knows that what you’re writing is very real.

The ordinary can become extraordinary in every single story, in my opinion. This is one reason writers love to people-watch and observe life. Anything, and I mean anything, can become an idea for a story. That story could earn you a thousand bucks in a contest. Or it might become a big bestseller! Look at Stephen King. His collection of the first short stories he ever published, Night Shift (I’m reading it right now. At day time!), features gigantic rats, a haunted cathedral, and a man-eating giant launderer machine. Imagine how he thought of those things. Perhaps his neighbor had a rat infestation. Maybe he had trouble with his washing machine. Perhaps his mind wandered off at church…

See? Anything can foster an idea. J.K. Rowling is another example of how something from our ordinary world can become the stepping-stone for an extraordinary story. She was delayed getting on the train home to London when a boy wizard just popped into her head. She did not know his name. She knew was what he was a wizard, and he did not know it yet. Tada! World bestselling book that makes her richer than the Queen of England!

The conclusion is that real life is not boring and does not turn fun, interesting, engaging stories into train wrecks. It just depends where you look, and what you do with it. Just wait for the ordinary events and people you experience in life start to tumble around in your mind, like the clothes in your mother’s dryer…and see what happens!

I think Mohsin Hamid says what I’ve tried to express perfectly: the idea that being a writer just means, being human! He says:

A human self is made up of stories. These stories are rooted partly in experience, and partly in fantasy. The power of fiction lies in its capacity to gaze upon this odd circumstance of our existence, to allow us to play with the conundrum that we are making ourselves up as we go along.”

Apologies if this all came out as nonsensical ramblings. I wrote this late at night with strange opera music in the background, and all the Stephen King reading has made me jittery and nervous! The slightest click in the house makes me jump.

To all writers out there – happy writing!
To all readers – happy reading!

If you are a blogger/writer and found my post interesting (and made sense of it), please stick a link to it in one of your posts! Thank you.



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