Going Beyond the Ordinary

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
George Eliot, Middlemarch

One of the greatest gifts a writer can have is the ability to transform the ordinary into extraordinary. Have you ever read a story where the simplest action or object is described with such insight you become mesmerized by something you would normally overlook? This experience can change our perspective on life and the world around us, proving if we dig beneath the surface, there is often more than meets the eye. But as a writer, how do we chip away the ordinary to get at the diamond core?

George Eliot’s quote, though focused on sound, has a lot to offer about the process. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she says, we would hear the world around us in a way quite different from what we hear now. As writers, we are taught to observe and transcribe, but what if observation involved more? What if our senses were infused with “keen vision and feeling” that went beyond the ordinary?

We don’t posses super human abilities, but that shouldn’t hold us back. True, we can’t hear grass grow or a squirrel’s heartbeat, but we know things, lots of things. We know the word love is a weak explanation for what we really feel about someone close. We know the familiar, unique smell that tells us we are home. We know the feeling of a knot working in our throats when we are upset. And we have an imagination. Even if we have never been in love or been white water rafting or baked an apple pie, we can imagine what it would be like. No, we are not super human, but we are human. It’s not about the abilities we are lacking; it’s about how we choose to use the abilities we have.

Sometimes, this means thinking outside the box. If we were to write only what is true, we would all be liars (and we wouldn’t have hugely popular series such as The Chronicles of Narnia or Twilight). Every writer knows it is nearly impossible to replicate in words an experience or object exactly the way it exists in real life. Some writers find they are more comfortable writing about things that are anything but real. This only proves our imaginations are a powerful tool. We will always want to embellish the truth, make it poetic, and iron out the wrinkles of reality. So how do we use this tool to our advantage?

Consider Eliot’s quote once more. Before reading it, had you thought about the sound grass makes when it grows or what a squirrel’s heartbeat would sound like? I hadn’t. In fact, I’d never thought about grass making a sound because I’d never considered it being capable of such a thing. Aha! Now we are going beyond the ordinary!

Here’s another example. Let’s imagine an old barn sitting in a field. Instead of thinking about the ordinary aspects of the barn, lets pretend we have the keen sense of vision and feeling Eliot describes. Get your mining gear out. Go beneath the surface. Stop thinking about the barn in terms of color, dimension, and the materials holding it together. Consider instead the barn’s history, the events it has witnessed, and the stories it might tell. What does the barn see and hear? What would its voice sound like if it could speak? What does it feel? Think about what events might have influenced the overall mood of the place. Perhaps a tragic event took place in the barn. Say someone committed suicide. Or maybe something wonderful happened there, perhaps an engagement or a special birth (think about the Christmas story and how that changed our view of a manger).

By viewing ordinary objects in this way, it’s possible to get at the heart of what makes even the ordinary, extraordinary. Ultimately the descriptions we find often get at what we really think or feel about the things we are describing. Oddly enough, sometimes imagination can produce a truer picture than our five senses.

So next time you are struggling with description, don’t take the boring route. Use your imagination to dig beneath the surface. Think outside the box, ask questions, and go beyond the ordinary!