The Best Days: Deepening Stories with the Ordinary
Yesterday, a Saturday, I worked out while Cathy slept in, and later we went out for breakfast. It was a beautiful October day here in the Midwest—sunny and warm—and we’d talked about going down to Circleville for the Pumpkin Show, but Cathy had gotten home late the night before after a week in Illinois for her work, and we were content to stay close to home and let the day come to us.
Which is how we found ourselves in a mattress store lying on a number of beds while other customers passed by, and we all pretended it wasn’t unusual to publicly display our preferred sleeping positions. Later we went dress shopping for Cathy and meandered in and out of various stores before making our way back to the mattress store and making our purchase. Of course, we had to stop in the pet store next to the mattress place because we’re new parents of an adopted cat, Stella, and now we’re on the lookout for the sorts of things cats require. Finally, we made our way back to the house where we watered our newly planted trees, had a nice chat with our neighbor, and checked our mail. Then it was time for dinner, so we went out to one of our favorite places and then to the car wash and a couple of other stores.
As we sat at a red light on our way home, Cathy said, “This has been the best day.”
“We haven’t really done anything,” I said.
“That’s why it’s been the best day,” she said. “It was calm, relaxed, and we were together.”
Sometimes we writers can be so intent on realizing our ambitions that we can forget to take note of the best days. Sometimes we need to take a breath. Sometimes we need to just be. Such pause recharges us while also reminding us of our blessings. Such days are also the necessary background against which the extraordinary days become prominent.
When we write memoir, we’re sometimes so focused on the story we have to tell—a story of illness, perhaps, or anger, or injury, or rejection, or a number of other plots that bring us to the page—that we forget the ordinary life out of which our unique stories arise. To forget to acknowledge these ordinary days is to turn away from the texture of our lives. We need the best days alongside our worst ones. We need to render the goodness alongside all that haunts us. No matter how dire our straits may be, we need to look for those small moments of grace that make us and everyone around us human. This isn’t to say that we should look away from the flaws, the wrongs, the wounds, but that we should also give space to the good things that can save us.
So here’s a quick writing exercise for both memoirists and fiction writers. Take something you’ve been working on (a memoir, a novel, a short story) and find a passage of negative emotion—maybe a passage that depicts anger, or sadness, or melancholy, or injury—and write a moment of goodness to lay alongside it, or even within it. See what that does for the story you’re telling. See what it does for the characters you’re putting on the page. Let them have their best days and see what it does for you and the way you feel about these people and their lives. See if it increases your degree of empathy. See if it tangles the emotions in a way that makes the story something no reader will ever forget.
Wonderful post, Lee. I’ve been reading your upcoming book, Telling Stories, and cannot tell you how grateful I am for many of the prompts you’ve provided—I’m not even half finished reading yet, so I know there are more to come. This blog post is a reminder that the mundane is often what we actually long for as your wife wisely made not of. The mattress store detail made me laugh. We have done the same thing, including my husband’s “high flips,” to test the mattress for bounce echo to the other side. Latex is the answer I think.
Thanks so much, Sarah, for your kind words about my new book. When it comes to mattresses, my wife and I did the exact same thing. We gave it the flop test. I’m the flopper. Cathy waited to see if the wave would reach her. Fortunately, it did not, and we’re both sleeping well!
Thank you for this reminder to celebrate, “paint,” include the moments that make us thankful for our lives – those, almost always, moments that are small. And, thank you Cathy or reminding us of that. Now – for what is really impressive: where did you get that photo, or whatever it is, of that book with the words bursting out? Wow.
Joy, the cover image of my new book, Telling Stories, is “The Book of the Lost,” by Su Blackwell.