Writing for yourself

by Ahalya on November 15, 2010

I was reading Alice Munro’s short stories last night, and tried describing a story to a friend. ‘I know exactly what she is talking about,’ I said happily, ‘how many times have I seen this in my own house, but never, ever, would I have found those words to describe what it looks like, what it feels like. I have never read this described before.’

And there you have it — the mundane, the ordinary, the unremarkable life, described.

What’s ironic is that it’s only when you try writing it all down: the train journey, the dinner you ate, the parent you love, or don’t love, the bedroom, the chairs, the dog you live with, even your nose or hair — that’s s when you will realise that words don’t come easy. Which is why when someone like Alice Munro or Alexander McCall Smith writes a book about what seems like nothing much, it’s then that you realise even boring lives are interesting.  Because the thoughts are interesting. It would be more accurate to say that the words those thoughts are wrapped in are interesting.

Have you written for yourself lately? About yourself maybe? I try often, and it’s amusing to read after a week, a month, a year or ten years, what had occupied my mind once, what I had obsessed about to the point of hysteria.

If you are a budding writer, remember this — even the best science fiction and fantasy borrows ideas from real life. So if you want to write that critically acclaimed tome that will stay a bestseller till kingdom come, you need to write about life, my friend. I often find that authors working on their first manuscript tend to sacrifice characterisation for plot. The narrative gallops forward, not pausing to describe important, tiny details that will colour the story and paint a vivid picture for the reader.

Think of your favourite book, but don’t open it just yet. Think about an episode in the book you really like. For instance, I love the last passage in the first Harry Potter book, when Neville’s bravery earns him precious points for the Gryffindors. Or, that part in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, when Alfred, an old man suffering from Parkinson’s, feels intense anger and frustration because he finds out that he will have to throw away an entire string of Christmas lights (that he has been unravelling carefully), because a few bulbs in it do not work, and even if he could repair the bulbs, which he cannot because these are ‘modern’ lights, his hands shake too much.

Now that you remember the episode, and can see it in your mind, now pick up the book, and read that episode. See how the words were chosen to carefully build up an experience for you. Now try making an experience for someone else.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sujata May 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm

That’s so nicely put. Going down the memory lane ,rifling through the pages of my journal I always end up questioning my sanity but its good fun going back to that time,a memory frozen in your own words.
Lately I had been thinking that I’m going nuts only writing about my life,my thoughts,my experiences.I,me and myself brigade.I had begun to seriously wonder if I could ever really be a writer.Why can’t I write like other people about metaphysical,philosophical and meaningful things?
You are absolutely right.I tried to describe the people I know and I failed miserably.I couldn’t even describe my own house.It requires great skill.Word play ain’t that easy with really familiar things.
Nothing is really mundane ,everything has a story and a good story teller can make anything sound interesting.

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Ahalya June 3, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Thanks for reading, Sujata. Sometimes when I am reading stories I wrote years ago, I surprise myself with my choice of words. Was I really that serious, could I have ever been so funny, had I really used that name… etc. I completely agree with you. Nothing is mundane. See you around again 🙂

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