THE BOOK DOCTOR
★ ★ ★ ★
CREATING AS COLLECTING
Image by Thom Milkovic
By Caroline Donahue
Have you ever wished for an uninterrupted block of time, believing that you could then power through your writing?
Most of us have been seduced by the idea that what’s stopping us from writing is interruption and other commitments. While many people got a huge amount of writing done during the distraction/destruction period that was 2020 and most of 2021, many others wrote nothing at all.
Certain kinds of distraction are fuel for writing. We think we need to retreat to a cabin in the woods with our meals left outside our door, but this is every bit as destructive as having no time to write at all.
Real life is a far more fertile source of material than we consider it to be, but writers spend a tremendous amount of time resenting and fighting against it.
Prolific author Danielle Steel, who had completed 179 books as of August 2020, found that she ground to a halt when isolated in lockdown. Despite this period being the equivalent of the writing retreat of everyone’s dreams, the words weren’t coming.
Steel explained to Random House’s Amy Brinker that “what I discovered during confinement was how much more than I ever realized, I rely on outside stimuli to fuel me, conversations, exchanges I see and hear between people, things I see on the street, or in a restaurant, items that interest me in the news. I absorb all the things around me, pick them up, and build a book with them, like a bird making a nest.”
How are we to build our nests of stories without gathering the supplies?
Once we stop fighting the realities that we now interact with more regularly, we can see how these nests of stories are constructed from the moments we experience throughout the day:
- An overheard conversation in line for a coffee suffuses dialogue with energy
- A colleague’s anecdote enriches the backstory for your character
- A magazine flipped though in a waiting room gives a clue for the twist in your plot
If we see the real world as the enemy, we’ll miss out on the gifts it has for us.
A number of years ago, I decided I didn’t have a day job, I was actually undercover researching my novel.
The fact that I wasn’t working on said novel at the time didn’t matter. Transforming the work I did during business hours into a potential book allowed me to feel like a spy sneaking around, instead of a resentful employee, denied of time to write.
When you are a writer, everything is writing, even waiting in line.
Here’s how to transform the everyday for yourself:
See everything as potential material.
There are no bad days, there is only good material.
As we return to more familiar pre-pandemic routines, many of us dread these changes. But what if everything that goes along with this process is useful? The way the woman on the train dresses. The interaction between two strangers in your office elevator. The stories from other parents at pickup. Any of these things can spark the wonder that becomes a character, a story, an essay, or a book.
All we have to do is switch from resistance to holding our minds open, like a butterfly net, ready to catch something beautiful.
The world wants to help you write.
Another reason so many writers resist collaborating with the world around them is that collecting inspiration like twigs for a nest feels a bit like cheating.
If someone walking down the street ahead of you says something in passing to a friend, is it really yours to use in fiction? If you collect a real-life event but change many of the defining details to suit your narrative, is that really writing?
Writing is a way of communicating with the world. It provides us with ideas and inspiration every hour of every day. Not accepting this gift is a bit like a bird thinking it needs to grow its own plants to build a nest. What’s powerful about writing is our ability to build something entirely new from the pieces of life that surround us.
Musicians all use the same notes. Painters use the same range of color. As writers, we use the same words as the rest of the world and filter life through it. Every nest is unique. Our power comes from how we combine what we find, and accepting that noticing something inspiring is just as much a part of the process as what we build from that base.
Your next story could be waiting for you right outside your door today. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel. Learn more at carolinedonahue.com