We’ve started a new semester here at Ohio State University where I’m teaching both a fiction and a creative nonfiction workshop. Last week, I found myself talking to students in both workshops about the importance of finding material that’s uniquely theirs. When I was a young writer, it took me some time before I figured out, first, what worlds I wanted to put on the page, and, second, how I saw those worlds. What were the stories and novels and essays only I could write?
I spent too long ignoring the places I knew most intimately, erroneously believing no one would be interested in my small-town, rural Midwest. It’s not uncommon for those of us out here in the heartland to think less of ourselves than we should. After all, there are plenty of messages, both subtle and more direct from both coasts that tell us nothing much happens out here in what’s commonly called “the flyover zone.” It’s easy to ignore us, but that shouldn’t mean we should be ignored, nor does it mean we should ignore the places and the people we know best. If we can’t create memorable literary works from the small places, what chance would we ever have with the large ones? Significant people live in seemingly insignificant places. They make choices that have consequences. They’re sometimes luminous or filled with dignity. They suffer and strive and celebrate and pray and love. Their lives matter.
Who are the people who matter to you? What are the places that have attached themselves to your heart? Answering these questions is a good place to start as you consider the question of the work only you can do. What are your obsessions, your regrets, your conflicted feelings? What mystifies you, unsettles you, soothes you? Where does your passion lie?
The answers to these questions might very well lead you to a deeper understanding of your vision of the world. What are your specific memories of that world? I remember stories of cruelty from my rural southeastern Illinois, but I also remember moments of great compassion. The cruel can surprise us with kindness, and the kind can sometimes be cruel. That’s the way I see my world. That vision creates pieces that sometimes have a small-town setting, and sometimes it comes to play in the stories I tell from more urban or suburban settings. Once you figure out how you see the world, you can use that vision to make any setting and its characters vivid and resonant.
The writer’s work doesn’t only involve the mastery of technique. Technique without vision is sterile. Here’s a prompt to get you started as you think about the way you see your own worlds. Put two people in a public place. It should be a place that matters a good deal to you—a library, a bus station, a grocery store, etc. Have one person extend a wallet to the other person. Have the first person say something like, “I believe you may have dropped this.” The wallet is a fat one. It promises to be full of cash. The second person knows the wallet isn’t theirs. What do they do? Flesh out your two characters however you like. Think about the second character’s response to the first character’s offer of the wallet. What does it say about the way you see the world? How does it lead to a significant chain of events? Once you have your place, your people, and an inciting event, you can let your imagination issue from your passion.