Where does a writer get material? Research? Research assistants? Superior intellect? A well-culled imagination? Keen observation of life from a variety of angles?
My husband and I recently flew to Arizona to attend the life celebration of my great-uncle. As our first flight took off, I looked out the window at the patchwork of farms and towns unfolding below us. The déjà vu was timely and poignant. Another journey over the same airspace had inspired the opening to my article published this week in the Lookout magazine. Describing the small, scattered Illinois towns made a great introduction to my profile of three churches in western Illinois who are doing great things for God’s Kingdom in spite of their isolated location and limited audience.
A casual glance out an airplane window seems like such an innocuous detail to tuck away in the memory files, yet it’s details like this that make writing real and interesting. I’ve learned over the course of my writing career that good writing takes more than simple observation. As a writer, I’ve trained myself to see the story inside the ordinary.
My military daughter says the Army uses acronyms for everything. In honor of her, I’m creating an acronym for great writing—O.R.C. No, that doesn’t stand for a fantastical malevolent warrior. Wrong genre. For my purposes, ORC stands for Observation, Retention, and Connection. Great writing pays attention to the sphere of everyday events, records it, and connects the dots to the bigger themes our audience wants and needs to hear. Let’s unpack those one at a time.
Observation: A good writer notices things others don’t. No detail is too small to slip away unnoticed. One friend commented I must have had a more exciting life than she did because I always have a story to tell. I disagree. Life is interesting for everyone; we need to throw open the windows of our senses to discover that world. I find many details by people watching, eavesdropping, and engaging strangers in conversation.
I’m naturally a shy, insecure person. But my innate curiosity about people has propelled me out of my turtle shell to engage total strangers in detail rich conversations. Once, when our girls were teens, one family flight to Arizona separated us from each other. One seat was by a middle aged woman; the other three filled a row. I opted to sit apart from my family. At one point, my husband asked the girls how I was doing. “Oh,” one girl quipped. “Mom’s being Mom. She found someone to talk to.” I had found someone who grew up in my hometown, owned a ranch in Southeast Arizona, and was coming back from a Mary Kay convention. We had lots to talk about!
Talking to people is getting harder. I love interacting with airplane seat mates but I’m finding that as our society buries their heads in their electronic devices, they are less apt to whittle away airplane hours by sharing their life stories with a stranger. I’m not immune to the temptation. It’s a constant struggle to expand my visual contact beyond my computer screen. If I want to weave real life into my stories and articles, I have to live a real life and connect with real people. While social media does provide opportunities for connections, it’s not quite the same. We need both and real is always better.
When I first began to write, some writer friends told how they had to guard their writing time jealously, even refusing to take on church responsibilities so they could spend more time writing. I disagree. We need to keep a balance between our social connections and our writing time. A good writer cannot become a recluse. Interaction with people in whatever capacity reminds us constantly of characters, current events, and real life struggles.
Retention. The older I get, the more often I lose my creative thoughts. I have to record my observations and the sooner, the better. I keep several notebooks scattered throughout my house, my purse, my knitting bag, and the car. I am notorious for hoarding a dozen pens in my purse at any given time.
As I pondered what I could share at my uncle’s funeral, I found a computer file labeled “Arizona Trip Journal” that contained several vignettes about my aunt and uncle. I had a string of stories to share officially at his funeral or in odd moments during casual family gatherings.
I feel I’m horrible at organization of all these bits and tidbits. Periodically, I’ll go through my handwritten notes and attempt to stash them in appropriate places on my computer. I keep several composition books handy, each for a different novel, one for random quotes, another for random phrases, yet another for a daily journal. When the time comes to use that material in a writing piece, I have trouble locating then deciphering my hand-scrawled notes. I’m open to suggestions on how organizational methods. I am grateful for search features on computers that allow me to type in phrases. If I remember the bare bones of an encounter, I can usually access it with a few key words.
Connection. How does a writer fit the pieces of observation and ideas together? I have no secret recipe. It just happens. Sometimes I feel like an old Jersey cow as I lean back in my office chair and ruminate about the article or blog I want to write. I do a lot of praying, asking the Lord to help me pull out the needed material from the treasure troves of my memory bank. Sometimes the connections come at the worst of times and no, it isn’t always right before I go to sleep. My moments come as I’m washing dishes, taking a shower or, sigh, during church. Sometimes I tell God that if the idea is important enough, He will help me remember it later. Other times, I give up, grab a pen, and scrawl all over my worship bulletin, figuring that writing about the Lord I love is an act of worship as I use the gift He’s given me to proclaim His glory.
That’s the ORC of becoming a great writer. For those of you who are writers, where do you need to improve? How can you work on that area this week? If your writing goes no further than a to-do list, a prayer journal, or a Facebook post, take a risk. Carve out time to note the clouds streaming past your window, the flowers bursting into bloom, or the animated tones of the person sitting next to you in church. Your own life will bloom brighter for the experience.