First, credit where credit is due. I did not come up with the above quote. I saw it on Facebook. The original is credited to You Know You’re A Writer When. I spruced it up a bit, giving it a background and a different font, but I like to credit people when I quote them, so there you have it.
Now, on to what I have to say.
When you’re a writer, everything, literally everything is fodder for fiction. Sometimes the stuff is obvious. You’re in a Starbucks, for example, eavesdropping on a conversation just a few feet away. (I have done this dozens of times.) Two people are fretting over their social lives or studying for an exam or fighting and your little brain is working overtime trying to catch all of it that you can. It’s raw and real and right in front of you. You listen to inflection and you might even scribble down a sentence or two, the whole time thinking, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
Indeed, you can’t, and the real, fleshy feeling of those conversations makes for great material. But that’s the low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to see how something like that could liven up a story or help you write better dialogue. What may not be as obvious are the other moments in life: the waiting, the worrying, the fear, the friction. Fights, afternoons of boredom, shopping at Wal-Mart (God help you), checking the mail–all of it. Every bit. All of those experiences, the climactic, the embarrassing, the revealing and the mundane, they all serve as potential source material.
Writing comes alive when it feels lived in. When I read a book and quietly, without knowing I’m doing it, nod to myself at a description, that’s the point when the writer is really driving his/her story home. When it strikes the reader as authentic enough that it’s plausible. When it feels worn. And that’s most easily achieved by using your own life, you’re own experiences, as a starting point.
It requires you to be brave, though. Damn near fearless, in fact, because you have to be willing to expose the soft underbelly of your own ‘lived in’ emotions to the brutal white expanse of the page. It’s partly about vulnerability, as I’ve written before. It’s also about avoiding the temptation to tie everything up in a neat little bow. Life isn’t like that. No story that resolves everything 100% is ever going to feel real. Those are nice, yes, and when we read them we sigh to ourselves, content that the characters all made it out of harm’s way, but those are not the stories that stick with us, leaving us contemplating them days or weeks later.
No, the stories that stick are the ones that take us on a journey that feels downright human. They are saturated in the stuff of humanity, and the only way to do that when you write is to pull from your own life, you’re own experiences, your own emotions and observations.
You’re a writer. Everything you experience is material.