“One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer. You start seeing everything as material.” -Anne Lamott
When I first started writing, I was deathly afraid that I would run out of things to say. I figured I probably only had a dozen or so good ideas rolling around in my head, and once those were gone, my career as a writer would be over.
Thankfully, it didn’t work out like that. I quickly realized that the more I wrote, the more I began thinking like a writer. The very act of writing reprogrammed my brain to see the world in a different way. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would write next.
Stading in line at a Starbucks, I overheard a snippet of dialogue that reminded me of a story from college that I had never written about before. Chatting with friends over dinner, my buddy Thad mentioned a frustrating work situation that happened to his wife, which reminded me about a couple of experiences I had at past jobs. Sharing cocktails during happy hour, I told my friend Jen about a management concept I had been mulling over and her reaction told me there was something worthwhile in the story I just told.
Each of those situations became the fruit for a new story. I only recognized them for what they were (i.e., potential stories) because I had been writing. If I had run into those situations several years earlier — before I was writing — I wouldn’t have realized the potential stories hidden inside those ideas.
“Writing is not a job or an occupation or a hobby. It’s a lifestyle…It has to be something you incorporate into your life as you go through your daily routine. I get ideas from waking up in the morning and walking out the door, and I look at the world through a writer’s prism, as I call it…and I see everything that everybody else sees but…I look at the potential of what could be out there if I sort of add a little fictional pixie dust to something. You can’t just see what’s out there in black and white. That’s what everybody else does, and those people are not going to be writing novels or screenplays or anything. They just see the world and they forget it and move on. Your job is to see the world and then realize the potential of what is out there every single day.” -David Baldacci
As a writer, anything you encounter in the wild has the potential to become a story. Boring things suddenly become less boring. Strangers become spies. Coincidences become conspiracies. Everything is source material. Or, in the words of Anne Lamott, everything is “grist for the mill.”
The more you write, the more you’ll develop a writer’s prism. Keep your eyes open for the stories that are lurking around you in your daily life.
Our lives are a vineyard of grapes that can be pressed into delicious wine, but we must first learn which grapes are worth pressing. And conversations are often the best way to parse out which grapes are worthy.
We’re all horrible judges of our own stories and ideas. Sometimes I come up with an idea that feels worthy of Einstein, but it comes out sounding more like Kramer. And other times, I’m shocked by how well others respond to one of my Kramer ideas.
That’s just how it goes. It’s impossible to accurately gauge your own ideas, but you can sift through them by hearing others’ reactions.
“A book should be an article before it’s a book, and a dinner conversation before it’s an article. See how things go before going all in.” -Ryan Holiday
Another great way to surface stories is to go out and try new things. Take risks. Do things worth writing about. You’re more likely to come up with a story idea while your feet are strapped to a snowboard than when your hands are resting on a keyboard. Every life event is fodder for a potential story. This is true for writers of both fiction and nonfiction.
Getting fired from a job, going on a blind date, traveling to a new country, attending a high school reunion, trying out for a local theater production — you name it. In the words of author Robert Greene, “It’s all material.” Any and every experience contains the potential for amazing stories.
While you’re out experiencing the world, you’ll meet a fascinating person that gives you an idea for a protagonist for your novel. Or you’ll get rejected trying something new, which will give you a fresh lens for empathizing with others who have faced similar situations.
“You’re so privileged to be a writer. Normal people, something bad happens to them and there’s nothing they can do with it except feel bad or complain or press charges.” -David Sedaris
Sad stories, dashed dreams, and memorable mistakes are ammunition for writers. Any experience can be converted into a story, and rough experiences often make the best stories. Author David Sedaris says he even goes out of his way to say “yes” to weird experiences that could end tragically: “I just figured, if I live, I can write about it. That’s how I’ve always thought.”
As a writer, failure is soil for growing heartfelt stories. Readers are drawn to stories about mistakes, loss, and heartbreak because they are authentic and relatable.
Think about some of the most powerful literary characters in history. They weren’t perfect heroes or heroines. They were flawed. They were vulnerable. They were broken. Eleven-year-old Harry Potter living in the cupboard under the stairs. Convict Jean Valjean on the run from Inspector Javert. Lovesick Juliet Capulet heartbroken that she can’t be with her Romeo.
Whatever failures and difficulties you’ve faced can be marshaled into your writing. Your worst moments can become your best stories. Write down your biggest failures, then review the list to see which ones can be marshaled into relatable stories for your readers.
But failure isn’t the only thing that makes for good stories. Remember, EVERYTHING is material. Triumphs, near-misses, average days, everything.
Neil Gaiman says that most of his creative inspiration comes from outside the world of writing. He credits musicians Lou Reed and David Bowie as two of the biggest influences upon his work, and he says that anything can be used as inspiration for writing.
Everything you encounter in life has the potential to influence your work: overheard dialogue on the bus, that song on the radio you can’t get out of your head, the television scene that perfectly depicts the sexual tension of a first date. Don’t limit yourself to only the influences in your genre. Drink from a wide-brimmed glass of creative inspiration.
You have way more material than you think you do, so just start writing.
Writing is like dipping a bucket into a well that gets more full with each bucketful you draw. There is an endless number of topics to write about. Once you start writing, you begin to see potential stories all around you. So go ahead…dip your bucket and get started. You’ll be amazed at how much water is in the well.
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