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Embrace the Ordinary


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by Marcia Peterson

Who would want to hear about my boring life? How can I write something compelling when my personal history is nothing special? These are questions many of us ask ourselves—and they can stop us in our writing tracks.

But ordinary can be enough, even great. First, you’ve got more material from your so-called boring life than you think. Second, strong writing skills can make almost any story interesting. It’s time to believe in your stories and get your pen moving!

Who’s to say you’re uninteresting?

We tend to believe that most people already know or experience a lot of the same things that we do, and therefore what we have to offer is common. But even if there isn’t much unique about your life, then the issues that have relevance to you would also be meaningful to many others. In other words, people who are similar to you would probably enjoy reading something they can relate to. For example, as a writer, don’t you enjoy hearing about other writers’ experiences?

On the other hand, there are people who live very different lives from you, who’d enjoy a peek into your world. Even the seemingly mundane can be fascinating if it’s different from our own lives. A book like Water Cooler Diaries: Women Across America Share Their Day at Work, a collection of short diary entries from women across the country on one given day, shows how interesting the average woman’s daily life really is. We are curious about people who live a different version of ordinary.

You are the tour guide

If you still think your life stories are too dull, writing guru Anne Lamott offers more support. In an older interview for The Writer magazine, she stated that you don’t have to have a lot of drama or outward destruction in your life to have a lot to write about. “But you need to have been paying attention, you need to probably have felt things very deeply,” she said. “If people are funny and can just tell me stories about life or give me their version of things, and choose their words carefully, I’m in. I’m interested.”

Lamott has always been honest in her own work, sometimes painfully so, and readers love her essays. She advises writers to share the real truth, and reminds us that we all have something to tell others. “I don’t think there’s anything more interesting than one human telling the truth in the clearest, truest possible way. If somebody has a sense of humor, it’s so fantastic. Everybody has been through something that no one else has seen, and he or she alone can be the tour guide for that time, that place, that house, and that role in the family—I think it’s all just inherently interesting.”

Don’t bore the reader

Author Vivian Swift also provides inspiration for sharing our ordinary lives. Her illustrated memoir, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put, has many fans. One of her readers wrote to Swift, noting what an interesting life Swift has led. Swift addressed this notion on her blog, stating: “And I want to answer this, once and for all: I have not. Had such an interesting life. No more than most.”

Swift then provided the secret for those of us with average lives: “However—and this is my whole raison d’etre as a writer/illustrator—I do know how to present ordinariness in a readable way. And that’s the only reason I get away with writing a whole book about myself, and why I give the impression of having had an interesting life.”

In reference to a certain part of the book, she continued, “So, the trick is, to write about that alley (and any other similarly ordinary part of one’s life) in a way that would make it interesting to other people, specifically readers. And that is the whole trick to writing a memoir: having an interesting life is not enough (and, in my case, not even necessary); it’s being able to write about it in a manner that doesn’t bore the socks off your reader.”

The bottom line? “If you give us a good enough story, we’ll let you get away with having an ordinary life,” she says.

***  

So, be confident in the value of your stories. Tell them well, and we’ll want to hear about your life. “I love it when people will tell me the truth and really take the lid off the soup pot and let me peer in,” Anne Lamott says. The ordinary can actually be extraordinary.


--This article originally appeared in WOW's Premium Green newsletter

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