You can never have a bad day as a writer


At a summer program I did in high school, one of my writing instructors, whose name I forget, told us that as writers we should “learn to savor melancholy.”

He was right. Being a writer makes most situations fascinating and useful, even ones that most would call unpleasant or annoying or forgettable. The a-hole at the convenience store, the peculiar physical sensations of an illness, a fear in the middle of the night — all of them become fascinating, rich experiences that can be worked into the next story. Being a writer makes you experience life. It makes you wonder about people and how they became themselves. There’s something fascinating about every person; just behind the canned smalltalk at the party is a cast of fascinating characters.

Great fiction shows us these details of our world, makes us consider them, marvel at them. So writers are always studying them to portray them. Every discipline of writing I’ve practiced has showed me another layer. Journalism made me listen for telling dialogue. Fiction taught me to smell, taste, touch and feel every scene, not just to see it (and baby handbooks taught me about the real sixth sense, the so-called vestibular sense, which senses motion and serves as your body’s internal gyroscope — the thing vertigo robs you of.)

Whether you’re a writer or not, every moment of your life, no matter how seemingly mundane, is packed with detail, nuance, subtext, and meaning. Yes, there in line for a cup of coffee. Your preconceptions that an experience is typical, annoying, boring, or just like the last time starve you of experiencing all that richness.

See the world as a writer today. Keep your iPhone in your pocket and check in with your senses. Come back and share a few of your observations in the comments. Free signed copy of the Felonious Jazz audiobook for my favorite(s).

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This article has 4 comments

  1. Vance Wade 04/20/2011, 8:16 am:

    There was this man in his 70s wearing an ancient leather belt. There were deep dents the D ring had made at about 10 different holes. He had the pin in a newly punched, non-factory hole, and it was barely holding up his pants. That belt told the story of him getting skinnier and skinnier. Also said a lot about him that he didn’t ever buy a new belt.

  2. Elizabeth 04/20/2011, 3:13 pm:

    There’s no smell quite like it: acrid, milky, spoiled-foodish, nauseating. One whiff and you’re doubled over heaving just like your child.

    My mother used to say that nothing in life was worse than having kids with the stomach flu, and in fact, Hell was probably just a place where everyone is throwing up and you have to run around cleaning it up. I believe her.

    As a parent of a child who says “My stomach feels funny” our reactions, in slow motion, are this: “Nah. It’s something else. She doesn’t understand the feeling. There must be something due at school.” or a hundred other excuses why the cause couldn’t possibly be puke.

    Just PLEASE let it not really be puke.

    But in one explosive moment of truth (and what better setting than the YMCA, groan), I was resigned to an afternoon spent with a brown bag, the toilet, one child with the stomach flu, and a rosary (please, God) to beg wholeheartedly that the other four kids be spared.

    [Bryan: thanks for giving me the opportunity to turn this ugly scene into a written catharsis.]

  3. Bryan 04/20/2011, 3:56 pm:

    I can smell the puke now, Elizabeth. Winner!

  4. James Hayes 04/20/2011, 4:02 pm:

    I totally love the mention of the convenience store. I have a pet peeve about getting a newspaper (yes people still buy those in the internet age) and cup of coffee and have my 1.75 ready for the clerk and you are behind some person cashing in a dozen or so pick 3 lotto tickets. It makes you wonder are these people in rough shape due to blowing money on pick 3 lotto tickets or do people actually win playing that game? If you ever bought something at convenience store in a state with the lotto, we’ve all been in that situation.

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