Recently, the writers I’m working with in a creative nonfiction class were required to take a mundane action and make in original. I went the low-tech route for doling out said actions, printing up phrases like “shaking hands,” “crossing an empty street,” and “changing a shirt” on small pieces of paper that would later be pulled from a stack on my desk.
That’s right; I’m too lazy to bring in a hat for them to draw from. Sue me.
Their responses were fun. One student drew “sending a text message” and included an account of a girl so preoccupied with her phone that she fell into an open manhole. Another student pondered the existential pain of the limp fish handshake and the relative certainty hand-touching will turn out awkwardly. Another went the passive aggressive route and wrote an entire response without ever addressing the action on her slip of paper. To be honest, I still don’t know what she was supposed to be writing about.
The point of the exercise, of course, was not sparkling exposition. Rather, its goal was to push writers toward that particular alchemy of good nonfiction – taking a familiar subject and presenting it in a way that challenges the ways readers have internalized it. The big academicky term I use is denaturalization (though as close to the border as I work, that often leads to discussions of immigration).
I think this process is extremely necessary if a writer hopes their work will arrest readers who are more and more inundated with information that does little to nothing in terms of being artful. The best chance literature has of maintaining a place of prominence in general culture is to do what it always has and lift halos from the mire of the macadam (to paraphrase – loosely – a dead French poet).
One element that begs to be made foreign is place. People like to read about exotic settings, but the stories that matter most to us happen in the most familiar locales. They happen on our cul-de-sac, at our supermarket, on the freeway we take to work, in the cubicle three rows over.
These places are not exotic. People don’t plan vacations to sit at the local Denny’s restaurant they eat at once a week. But to a writer this is a great opportunity.
Take what should be experiential wallpaper and give it the Charlotte Perkins Gilman treatment. Skew the image of a bus bench in a way that forces readers to focus on the people sitting there; the people those same readers fail to see as they pass by each day, locked up in their “Lexus cages” with the radio on to drown out the life being lived around them.
I remember reading Ishmael Beah’s book A Long Way Gone about child soldiers in Sierra Leone a short while after spending a couple months in the country adopting my daughter. What struck me most about the experience was not the story (although it is amazingly powerful in its simplicity).
What caught me was how his descriptions of Freetown recast my own mental images of several places I’d been while we were there. Images drenched in sunlight and success are now clouded in shadow and sadness because of what so many children like my daughter suffered. But those shadows also heighten my ability to appreciate the daughter I sometimes forget is adopted.
And that is anything but mundane.
Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief, as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and three children.