AT ITS CORE, writing is about finding meaning in the mundane. That’s why some of the most satisfying and universal personal essays and stories spring out of completely ordinary events.
You don’t have to have climbed Mount Everest or overcome a deadly disease to have something interesting to write about. In fact, personal essays often employ an anecdote about a simple everyday activity or event as a springboard into a larger topic.
Take Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Street Haunting,” for example. It begins as a story about going out onto the streets of London to buy a pencil. But really, the essay is about perception. “…a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” And through this eye, Woolf takes us on an adventure through city life at night, revealing the strangeness and ordinariness of human nature.
Wendell Barry’s “An Entrance to the Woods” begins with driving to a trailhead and embarking on a walk. He describes the light, the sounds, the smells and sensations as he passes through the woods and then makes camp for the night. There’s nothing remarkable here; we have all walked in the woods or camped at some point in our lives. From there, though, Berry expands his subject to the loneliness of night in the wilderness, to the “ancient tribesmen” who must have lived there at one time and the deep sense of the history embedded in that very wilderness. His essay, which starts out small, enlarges, until, “…what I have done is strip away the human facade that usually stands between me and the universe, and I see more clearly where I am.”Every ordinary moment contains the seed of the extraordinary. Click To Tweet
So how do we take the mundane, which is the literary equivalent of small talk, and transform it from boring to brilliant? How do we reshape simple acts or experiences into stories?
Your story can spring from any part of your day that had some emotional impact, however small.
As an example, think about what you did today. Because it was a weekend day, I had time to read, write, putter in the garden, take a walk through the neighborhood, cook dinner, and watch a movie on Apple TV. I enjoyed light conversation with my Significant Other. But ho-hum — nothing stands out as particularly interesting, right? Maybe. But maybe there is more here than initially apparent.
As I mentally review my day, one moment stands out for me. We’ve had a particularly cold spring in Northern California, the temperatures hovering in the mid-60s for weeks. Today began the same, a layer of steel-grey clouds blanketing the sky and a cool breeze ruffling the leaves in the trees. But late in the afternoon, the clouds broke suddenly, revealing a brilliant and limitless blue sky. I happened to be outdoors at the time, taking care of some much-needed spring pruning. And like a flower seeking light, my face turned into the sun. I stopped everything and sat down on a nearby chair and, for a time, simply soaked in the sun’s warmth, feeling its rays penetrate deeply into some bone-weary part of me. Perceiving the photosynthesis of life and energetic renewal.
This small moment could begin an essay reflecting on the habit of doing vs being; it could branch out into the importance of connecting with nature or engaging in activities that renew and refresh; it could become a springboard to something else altogether, a memory of something that happened in the past, or hopes for the future. There’s definitely substance here for me to creatively explore and examine.
- Think back on your day (or yesterday, if you’re reading this in the morning).
- What one moment stands out as having some emotional resonance? Was it a conversation? A moment alone? Something you observed from a distance or something close up and personal?
- Write a brief outline about that moment using the 5 Ws as guidance — Who was there, what was happening, when was it, where was it, and finally — perhaps the most important question to ask — Why was it?
- Close your eyes and remember the sensory details of the moment or event: sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and physical sensations, both external and internal. Write these down.
- Now, in a paragraph or two, recreate that moment in a scene using the information and sensory details you’ve gathered.
- Then, to explore the moment’s meaning, here are a few questions to ponder:
- Why does this moment strike you as memorable?
- What was important about it? What speaks to your heart and mind?
- Does it have a deeper meaning and/or remind you of something else in your life? Trigger another story from your past?
- Is it part of a pattern in your life?
- What about this moment is a shared, universal human experience?
- What did or can you learn from the event?
- How could you expand your story to include some of these reflections and/or similar events?
- Go ahead. Expand your anecdote by exploring one or more of these directions in essay or story form. Or write a letter to a friend sharing what this moment means to you.
As you discovered (or were reminded of) through this brief exercise, each seemingly ordinary moment contains the seed of the extraordinary. We only need to open ourselves up to it and be willing to go where our minds and imaginations lead us.
Practice capturing these “emotionally resonant moments” in your journal each day, and when you’re wondering what to write about next, you can use one of these entries as the basis of your next personal essay or memoir vignette.
What did you write about today?