Tuesday, September 10, 2013

From the Mundane to the Sublime: How to Make your Work Extraordinary

As a writer, I've always been intrigued by the mundane. By mundane, I'm thinking, not of dull or tedious, but rather of its alternative meaning of being 'of this earthly world', secular, temporal.  These are the details of our lives - those things that other readers will recognise - the day to day world that surrounds us. Most of the time we're too busy to stop the endless doing and observe and perceive.  But this is a writer's job. To look closely at those moments and allow them to morph into something extraordinary.  Morph? What is that? Are we talking magic realism or sci fi here?  No, this is real life, such as the observation of a common beetle or bird in the garden - something utterly ordinary.  In that moment where we turn our gaze deeply  into the thing, we suddenly transcend the limits of our human condition and see things with a certain transformative eye where the detail contains the whole.In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg puts it this way: "Go so deep into something that you understand its interpenetration with all things. Then automatically the detail is imbued with the cosmic; they are interchangeable."  That all sounds grand and esoteric, so how, specifically, as writers, do we create this kind of transcendence, without making the work so dense that it loses its connection to the everyday?  Here are a few tips:

Use of point of view.   We all come to each situation we find ourselves in with a welter of memories, issues we're currently grappling with, and desires.  In short, at any moment we're all in the 'midst of life'.  If you take that 'midst', in other words the situation of your characters, and filter it into those things that surround them - the butterfly landing on their hand, the rain that just won't stop, or even the dishes that are being done, the mundane suddenly is infused with the whole of your character perspective.  In the early twentieth century, this tended to sit with stream of consciousness writing, where the inner thoughts of characters become apparent to the reader, but it doesn't have to be a random stream.  Those thoughts can be anchored in the moment, and reasonably logical, while still coasting across all those desires that make up any character.

Step out of the stream. Stop for a moment and let your characters see the bigger picture.  You can do this with a third person narrator, or just allow the characters a momentary glimpse at the bigger picture.  For example, a young girl may be struggling with bullying, but just for a moment in the midst of the highest conflict, give her a glimpse of the future or even of the broader context of her life and let her see the pain she's struggling with for what it is - momentary and transient.  Those kinds of epiphanies are the stuff of character transformation and will progress the story perfectly.

Use symbols.  Symbols do exactly what we're talking about here. They turn the mundane into the sublime, by referring to something else.  An office cubicle or conference room might symbolise oppression.  A tourist visit to the Statue of Liberty might symbolise freedom.  A bird song or plot of dirt might symbolise freedom or getting back to roots or even shaking off a depression that has become overwhelming. 
All of these things are subtle, and have to be dealt with carefully, with poetic skill.  But being able to use the everyday to hint at a deeper meaning; a secret sub-story below the surface, is what makes art.  As readers, we instinctively look for it in the books we read.  As writers, we're always aiming to create it.

 For more about Magdalena visit: http://www.magdalenaball.com


  1. The subtleties are what I love best about good fiction. Thanks for pinning them down. I will look through my WIP and see if I incorporated your suggestions. Thanks, Maggie, for a great post!

  2. Wonderful encapsulation of how to transform your writing by focusing on those memorable moments. Thanks Maggie--this expresses precisely what I rarely manage to convey. Shall bookmark and share often.

  3. Thanks for an intriguing post, Maggie. This is the sort of thing that makes for good devotional writing--when you dig deep and find more, way more, than you saw at first.

  4. Great article, Maggie, with some good tips for writers. Trying to do these things when we write is what makes writing fiction so much fun!

  5. Great tips Maggie. I like the idea of finding the sublime in everyday occurences.

  6. Well said, Maggie! I am often inspired by the "mundane". Some of the greatest treasures may be found there.

  7. Maggie, another great article. This is what authors strive for, making the ordinary extraordinary. Thanks for the helpful tips!


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