Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Turn Your Most Boring Day into Writing Gold

One writing exercise I give my students is to write about something interesting which happened to them in the last 24 hours.  Some complain that they lead boring lives!  But writers aren't people who have interesting things happen to them.  Writers are people who find something interesting in anything that happens.

 To demonstrate, here's my 24-hour essay: 

Support Your Local Latté

     A new coffee shop recently opened a few blocks south of the coffee shop I usually frequent in North Kansas City.  On Tuesday afternoon, I almost went to this new place.  I drove through its lot so I could discern in a totally risk-free manner what lay inside: by reading the drive-thru menu.  However, all they had to eat was pastries and, since I had just come from the Y, I wanted lunch.  So I drove to a Mexican restaurant, ordered food, and then went to my usual hang-out, where I knew I’d be welcome to bring in outside food so long as I ordered a drink.

            While eating my chicken rice bowl and drinking a caramel macchiato, I overheard a conversation between John, the owner of the coffee shop, and another customer.  She asked him what he thought of the new competition down the street, the place to which I had almost gone.  John’s answer surprised me.  He didn’t diss the competition or go into a sales pitch about how his coffee was better.  Instead, he said he didn’t think of the new coffee shop as competition.  He’d met the owner, thought he was a nice guy, and wished him well.  John was more worried about the new Starbucks going into the supermarket down the lot.  “Chains are taking over,” he said, “and I always root for local business.”

            I’ve long heard of the war between local businesses and chains.  One midtown Kansas City coffee shop I used to frequent (no longer in business) cheekily posted a sign behind its counter: “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.”  But as tempting as it is to dump on chains, I’ve always dismissed such concerns as the usual fluff between competitors. It’s the equivalent of wrestlers looking into the camera and challenging the manhood of their opponents.

            And, although I nominally support local businesses, I go to chains, too.  I like variety, and Starbucks, I admit, suits my fancy sometimes. 

            But John’s support for the new guy down the block gave me pause for thought.  The competition between local businesses and chains is quite real.  Chains risk little and have nothing to lose if you go elsewhere for your latté.  Small businesses like John, on the other hand, might have everything to lose.  They often go out of their way to keep customers coming back.  Shortly before this customer walked in, I overheard John serve a woman through his own drive-thru window.  (You gotta have a drive-thru these days.)   She told him it was her birthday.  Guess what.  She got a free drink. 

            It’s been several years since I asked Sam, one of John’s baristas, if I could bring in food from elsewhere.  Neither John nor anyone else has ever blinked when I’ve done so.  Could I get away with doing that at Starbucks?  I don’t know.  I’ve never tried.

            However, I will soon be taking a risk of a different sort.  I’ll go to the new coffee shop down the street.  I know John won’t mind.

Some tips on finding stories in your life:

  • Connect your story to something larger than itself.  (In the above example, I connected my coffee shop visit to the tensions between local businesses and chains.)
  • Look for the conflict.  Without conflict, it should go without saying, you don't have a story. (In this case, the conflict is not mine but between local businesses and chains.)
  • Listen. Observe. Pay Attention.  (This is hard for me to do on an ordinary day, but, if you watch life happening around you, some stories write themselves.)
  • Look for some way in which you've changed or want to change as a result of the incident.
  • Include a few relevant details.  A quote or two always helps.

So, that's it!  Your writing exercise for the day, should you choose to accept it, is to write a short essay or story about something that happened to you in the last 24 hours.  Post your results in the comments section below.

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