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Make the Ordinary Come Alive

Photo by Kristina Servant

I recently stumbled across some parenting advice that resonated deeply with me, and if you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain why I think it’s valuable for us to consider in regards to our writing too.

Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand. And make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself.
– William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

As a mother, it’s hard for me to look at my two-year-old daughter and not imagine all the amazing things she could do and become. Obviously I want the best for her, and I believe her to be full of limitless potential, capable of reaching the highest heights.

But is it fair to ask that of her? Is it best for her to feel that kind of pressure?

Or would it be better to follow where she leads, and to nurture her interests and skills as they make themselves known? To teach her that life is not a ladder that needs to be climbed to the top, but rather a playground to be explored and enjoyed?

Writers tend to be big dreamers, so it’s no surprise that when we look at our work, we see vast possibilities and hope for resounding success. And don’t get me wrong, hope and possibility are wonderful things.

But over the past few years, I have come to believe that setting them aside is better for the work.

When you are sitting at your computer with your work-in-progress before you, don’t ask it to become a New York Times bestseller. Don’t ask it to win a National Book Award. Don’t ask it to get a movie deal, or make you into a millionaire.

Don’t ask your short story or your personal essay to win a Pushcart. Don’t even ask your blog post to go viral.

Instead, revel in the sound of the keyboard clacking while you work. The glide of pen over paper. The joy of stringing words together. You had a thought, and you transmitted it from your mind to the blank page in front of you. That’s practically magic!

I’m serious.

There is a great deal to wonder and marvel at in even the most “ordinary” of writing. A line of dialogue that makes you laugh, or an everyday detail rendered in unexpected language that makes you think of it anew.

In my experience, immersing yourself in the joy of self-expression — reaching inward and exploring the territory you find there, rather than looking outward and wondering how people will receive you — leads to a more fulfilling creative process, and that in turn leads to producing richer, more engaging writing.

In other words, some of the most important (ongoing) work I’ve done is to learn how to ask less of my writing. To respect what the story is, rather than pushing it toward something I’ve decided it should be.

To be clear, this isn’t New Age hippie advice about relinquishing all control and letting the muse take over. Discipline and intentionality are valuable tools in the daily practice of any writer.

Nor is this about pantsing versus plotting. What I’m advocating is perfectly compatible with outlines and structure.

This isn’t about process; it’s about mindset.

It’s about putting away the pressure to succeed — or at least redefining what success is. It’s about nurturing your story into being the best version of itself that it can be, and believing that that goal is as worthy as any and all other goals you may secretly harbor.

(It also happens to be inherently conducive to those other goals, by the way. The extraordinary will take care of itself, after all.)

Do you find yourself putting too much pressure on your manuscript’s shoulders? If so, what techniques do you have for checking that impulse? 

About Kristan Hoffman [2]

Originally from Houston, TX, Kristan Hoffman [3] studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and later attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Now she lives with her family in Cincinnati, OH, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction with a focus on feminist, multicultural stories. Her words have appeared in the New York Times, Switchback, and the Citron Review, among others. She is currently at work on a Young Adult novel, and is represented by Tina Dubois of ICM. For more, please visit her website [4].