Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Three: Everything is Material

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“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”
~Catherine Drink Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

A friend recently shared with me the news of a family member’s passing. She told me of the sadness and horror she felt watching this person fight against the inevitable. I listened and cried with her. And then later, on the drive home, a First Line popped into my head. A story based on what she’d told me. Did I listen to her with the intent of writing about it later? No. Am I writing about her relative? No. Am I writing a story with a similar circumstance and mining her story for fodder? Yes. Do I feel weird about that? Yes. And also a little bit not.

Everything is material.

Earlier this year I lost a friend. His passing was sudden, unexpected. I stood beside his casket grasping to accept this new reality. Then something surreal happened. I realized there was a second me in that moment — The Observer — hard at work, taking in the details of the scene. The green-yellow tint in the half-moons of his fingernails. The way his jaw settled too deep into his neck. The clay-like appearance of his skin. Startling detail. Startling realization of this other me, etching the scene into my memory. Have I written about him? No. Will I use the details I observed? How can I not?

Everything is material.

Most people think writing fiction is making things up. That is part of it, yes. But another important part of writing is observing. Writing is an act of witness. Our job is to see what happens around us and what happens inside us. To watch. Our lives. Others’ lives. The lives of people we know and people we don’t know. The animate and the inanimate.

This doesn’t mean just the big things (e.g., death), but the everyday things as well.

  • The overheard words in the grocery line
  • The checked-out look on the face of the mom with the screaming infant
  • The dappled sunlight through the trees
  • The slowing of traffic for the ambulance
  • The memories that jostle to the front of your mind during the day

Everything is material.

Sometimes these observations will slip easily into your work in progress, or spark the sudden creation of a new story. Most times the things you observe pickle in your subconscious, waiting for the right time.

Your job is to take it all in, let it nestle in your brain, so when that right time arrives — when the words are flowing onto the page — your subconscious slips the telling detail into place. Then the act of writing feels effortless, magical, real. Then your readers will connect with that true detail. They will read your words and think, “Yes, yes, exactly.”

What material is around you right now? Are you observing?

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4 thoughts on “Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Three: Everything is Material

    theshiksa said:
    December 10, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Great blog Amy! Love when that subconscious mind kicks in. 😉

    scgreen said:
    December 10, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Wow.
    The information you give here Amy, I expect most people would pay to hear at a seminar. Your words are soothing yet authorial. Please don’t forget me once you get that huge following.

    Diane Bedell said:
    December 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Great work Amy. Beautifully written. How do you find the time?

    amyknichols said:
    December 11, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Thank you, theshiksa, scgreen and Diane, for reading my blog and for posting your kind comments! It’s awesome having the support of great writers like yourselves. 🙂

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