Taking inspiration from author Cheryl Strayed, let’s explore the deeper themes that drive our stories and writing.
Last week, I finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a collection of writings by author Cheryl Strayed in her role as Dear Sugar, an advice columnist for TheRumpus.net.
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.