Art Isn’t Anecdote

Taking inspiration from author Cheryl Strayed, let’s explore the deeper themes that drive our stories and writing.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Last week, I finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugara collection of writings by author Cheryl Strayed in her role as Dear Sugar, an advice columnist for

In Tiny Beautiful Things, what’s most impressive isn’t how thoughtful or insightful Sugar’s replies are, but her uncanny ability to make each question seem so fragile and universally human. As a writer, it’s her columns on creativity, art, and the art of writing that stand out as little nuggets of artistic wisdom.

I teach memoir writing occasionally. I always ask my students to answer two questions about the work they and their peers have written: What happened in this story? and What is this story about? It’s a useful way to see what’s there. A lot of times, it isn’t much. Or rather, it’s a bunch of what happened that ends up being about nothing at all.

You get no points for the living, I tell my students. It isn’t enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the personal, it must be driven by the engine of what the story means.

Writing, and reading, can be summarized as the act of taking an individual story and extrapolating the universal from it. Action and intrigue draws us in, but it’s the deeper, more human themes that make a story stick with us. Like Strayed says, the story must “transcend the limits of the personal.”

As you write your next post, or work through a piece you’ve been stuck on, take inspiration from the above quote and ask yourself: what happened in this story and what is it about? Has it transcended from the personal to the universal? Who are you speaking to and why are you driven to share this story?

Whether you’re a personal blogger, poet, fiction writer, or political commentator, the first step of writing is getting it down. The second part is where you twist and mold the raw material of your work into something that’s more than fact. As you share the anecdotes of your life, see what it means to let them be driven by the deeper meaning of your story.

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  1. Whatever we have to share, wherever our inspiration comes from, as a writer we all want to inspire others, or someone out there who might draw something from our experience. Our life’s journey does not make us so isolated that we have not touched someone out there along the way. What one gains or draws from our experience is worth our writing about it, and worthy enough to share to the world if it is something that brings hope, change or positive behavior. It is what drives my writing and my sharing.

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    1. Hi Joyce that is so true everyone has touched a life in certain manner. There are so many times I feel low about problems in life and feel what is the point if we cannot solve them, whereas it snot the case . We are constantly struggling to be better and make those around us better as well.To write is like sharing with the world the best of you.

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      1. Yes. We might never know of one whose life we touched by what we wrote, but to just share and write it means we’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to maybe help someone else through our own experience.

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  2. Thank you so much! I am just starting to share some of my thoughts on my new site. It needs some work, of course. I’m not a seasoned writer, yet. Just a seasoned soul that’s wanting to inspire others. I will take this advice to heart. Again, thanks for sharing it.

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    1. I don’t know if seasoned writer is a real thing, by nature we will always change and mould our stuff. Some stories are just totally different to our normal style, reading other stuff or even seeing a movie can change how my writing plays out entirely!
      Keep writing, you have no idea were it will take you!

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      1. Thanks for the encouragement. And yes I believe also that our lives are in a constant state of Flux as is our writing that reflects such change. But, isn’t that what seasoning is? Something that transforms the bland of a 9-5 life, making every morsel of life that much better. Season away my friend!

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  3. I also send my gratitude for your sharing this excellent advice. Your point is clear on “the human themes sticking with us.” As I also am beginning my endeavors of writing, I am learning as I as my critics to read what I have written….they want More! Readers don’t want just a summary, they are seeking depth, that chance to see inside worlds that are not visible to our common sight but only that one we perceive in our imaginations and dreams.

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  4. Oddly enough I just started reading this book last night and I cannot put it down! I am already learning so many things in so many ways. I could gush about Cheryl Strayed for days. She’s always “on the floor” as she says in one of her pieces. She is so insanely humble that she extends her own dramatic life to mean something for people. A huge inspiration to me as a growing person and as an aspiring writer.

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  5. That is a very insightful idea of what writing should be about! I certainly will be keeping this in mind when writing my next post:)

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  6. Excellent! I’m reading “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Laura took her autobiography and transformed it into the fictional “Little House” series because fiction helped move the story forward and develop her themes. Thank you for sharing these two helpful questions to help develop blog posts.

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  7. Thank you. This post made me think of SOMEONE, written by Alice McDermott. It reminds me that I don’t have to be an adventurer like Jack London or mentally tortured like Sylvia Plath in order to write.

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  8. It seems like u r writing what comes to my mind .. especially when you have said the first step of writing is getting it down .. I do the same i have thoughts and i try to put them down without hesitation and sometimes i do reread with more than one way just to realise that it’s exactly the same as I feel *.* #AFAF

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    1. I know the old advice of “always keep a pen and paper with you” is well worn and dragged out at every opportunity, but it can be really relevant. It can be hard to find time to write and even jot something down, that’s why I’ve started doing it all on my phone now, it’s something I always have on me and it’s smaller then a notepad! Plus it never runs out of ink haha

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