It happened again last week. Twice. Two clients asked me, in an off hand, “Oh by the way, I was just wondering” tone, whether, really, anyone would ever want to read what they’ve been working so crazy hard on for months. They tried not to sound like they were freaking out -- a dead giveaway that they were already deep in the land of the panicked.
And here’s the really interesting thing: both of these novelists were worried about the same thing -- that no one will want to read their stories because what they’re writing about is too mundane.
They were so deeply wrong. But they were also onto something. Because they had tapped into a very, very widespread fear – that writing about everyday trials and tribulations is boring. When asked what their book is about, I often hear writers sheepishly mumble, as if slightly embarrassed, things like:
- It’s just about a woman struggling to deal with the fallout of a crumbling marriage.
- It’s just about a woman trying to figure out whether she should stay with her husband, or reunite with her high school boyfriend.
- It’s just about a man who’s realizing that he’s spent his entire life muting his real self in order to live up to what he thinks his father expects of him.
You know, the ho hum everyday things that we all face in one way or another just about all the time. Common. Plebeian. Routine.
Exactly!!! And that is precisely what we come to story for: insight into how to handle those things we have to deal with everyday. Those mundane things are what’s on our minds more than anything else. They’re what we’re wired to notice, think about, evaluate and try to do better with – they are life. In other words, while in general the mundane seems, well mundane, when you’re living your own specific version of it, it’s anything but mundane.
We all struggle with our relationship to others every minute of every day. We all want people to like us, even the harried barista at the Starbucks we’ll never even go to again. As one sage writer once said of himself, “I’m just another insecure Joe who wants people to like him.” That’s all of us. And that’s the heart and soul of story – the push/pull between people. That precarious balance between getting what we need from others, and yet maintaining our sense of self. How vulnerable do we allow ourselves to be? How much do we hide? What’s really going on beneath the surface of “how things seem.”
Let me give you an example from real life that just this minute happened. I was emailing my contact in the Writers’ Program at UCLA where I’m about to teach a class this fall. We’d been going back and forth about technical info for navigating their new instructor portal. Her emails, which in the past were friendly and long, were suddenly short, terse. Uh oh, I thought, have I done something wrong? Did I forget to turn something in? Did I miss a deadline, or is it more subtle . . . have I offended someone? Maybe this will be the last class they’ll want me to teach . . . maybe . . .
And then I got another email from her, sending me one last bit of technical info, and she ended it by saying, “Pardon my brevity, but I’m trying to finish a million things by Friday.” I could have kissed her! I not only breathed a sigh of relief, but I marveled at her kindness – she’d realized that her responses were different than usual, thought I might wonder about it, and so reassured me. And so I, in turn, wrote back thanking her for her kindness. Because that’s what we all want: to have our everyday kindnesses seen. Because that everyday stuff? It’s not mundane at all. It’s an indication of how we see the world. It’s an indication of how we’ll act when push really does come to shove.
And that’s why -- as I told those writers who were worried that their stories were about such common, mundane problems that they would bore readers -- what you’re writing about is how to navigate the human condition, and there’s nothing more interesting to us humans than that!
I’ll leave you with one last thought. As Jennie Nash and I have noticed, both in our private clients, and in the amazing students who’ve come through our Story Genius Workshop – at the end of the day what most people are writing about is the internal battle between the desire for, and the cost of, genuine human connection.
Whether they’re writing about 16th century China, the wild west, World War Whatever, life on planet Mars or the intersection between the wood witches and the humans in the mythical land of Alshara – the real story unfolds in the human search for meaning, connection and emotional survival in this cruel, beautiful world.
So if you’re worried that what you’re writing about is too mundane to be interesting, chances are you’re actually digging into something good! Big relief, isn’t it?