Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Using the Mundane

Millersville University and California State University, Fullerton, co-host a website called The Journal of Mundane Behavior·, a journal devoted to “those aspects of our everyday lives that typically go unnoticed by us.” The articles cover topics like paperclips, cell phones, and bubble wrap. On the surface, these subjects are boring to most people, but even those ordinary things we take for granted each day can be valuable sources of writing ideas.

Many people think they can’t write if they don’t have unusual or exotic lives. They’ve never left their hometown, nor do they have glamorous jobs. Their families are pretty ordinary and without the conflicts that become topics of shows like Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer. You don’t have to live exotic lives to be able to write. Flannery O’Connor said if we’ve survived our childhoods, we have enough material to write about forever. Many published authors like Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver wrote stories about basic human condition. They were set in ordinary places. The characters were ordinary people. Their stories aren’t filled with exotic locales or glamorous people.

Make a list of seemingly mundane events or places. For instance:
taking a bath
brushing teeth
eating a meal
watching television
pumping gas
standing in line
reading mail

Choose one of the events from your list. Use it to create a scene where you make something interesting happen. Provide a twist. Perhaps someone gives in to the temptation to do something funny or outrageous. For instance, while brushing her teeth in her boyfriend’s apartment, Ashley decides to decorate the bathroom with toothpaste. While watching television, a 10-year-old boy calls Cleo the psychic and discovers that his life is about to change. Ask “What if?” Write your scene in any point of view. Feel free to be outrageous.

Once you create the scene, you may have a new story idea. See if you have a conflict that will carry the story. Outline possible conflicts and plot lines. This is your chance to do something you’d never do. Have fun with this. Don’t worry now about whether or not the scene is enough to carry a full story. Like all other exercises, this is practice. Tuck the scene away for another time. Who knows where you might be able to use it?

Here’s a variation of the exercise. Instead of listing mundane situations, make a list of ordinary objects you’d encounter in a typical day. Don’t think too much. List the objects as fast as they come to you. For instance: bubble wrap, instant coffee, door knob, dog biscuit, loose change, etc. Now write five actions associated with each object. For example:
1) A middle-aged man stomps on bubble wrap.
2) A mother wraps an urn with bubble wrap.
3) A child buries her dead hamster in a bubble wrap coffin.
4) A teenager wears a bubble wrap dress to the prom.
5) An interior designer makes bubble wrap ottomans

Choose one of the actions that stands out for your. Write for fifteen minutes without thinking or editing. Don’t worry about plausibility or logic. If you want, flesh it out with details, action, and dialogue. Let yourself go. Give yourself permission to have fun.