ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): M for Mundane

Posted by on Sep 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

So your story is going along, and then suddenly 1 your character needs to participate in some extraordinarily ordinary activity, or interact with some object always taken for granted, and you hate to just say it how it is because that would be boring, but you can’t think of a different way to tackle the issue. If you’re writing a story that takes place in a modern setting, this probably happens all the damn time, and if you’re a realist, it’s likely that every damn thing your character interacts with is ordinary, and therefore mundane, and you therefore run the risk of potentially being really boring all the time, and that’s not what you 2 want. How then do we write about the mundane, the ordinary, the plastic status quo of modern living in an interesting and fresh way? It’s tough, for sure.

There isn’t necessarily a trick for this, a “Get Out of Writing About Boring Things, Free” card, 3 so to speak, but what I see a lot of excellent writers doing oftentimes in such asphyxiating situations is noting some hitherto unnoted detail, and in that observation, placing a thematic emphasis on it, whether for emotion or intellect’s sake. This can be done by either the narrator or a character. Look at an object or a situation, and then mention something about it that would otherwise be taken for granted, and have the nuances of that vocalized observation be the vehicle for the thematic underpinnings of your piece. 4 Sometimes this comes out of research—finding out something unusual about something, and emphasizing that detail in such a way that it clearly ties in with your theme(s), or evoking a certain emotion from portraying something in a light that doesn’t necessarily change what it is, but only the way you perceive it. Sometimes this is done just by using the sensate to evoke the emotional and/or the intellectual. The real trick about doing this effectively lies in the craft of the nuances: don’t overstate it or make it heavy-handed or overwritten: keep it simple and poignant.

Let’s take a look at a few passages from Don DeLillo’s Underworld that do this masterfully. 5

Brian said, “My brother carried a rubber in his wallet all through adolescence. He showed it to me once, I think I was twelve. Flipped open his wallet and showed me this little wizened thing like a deflated penis and I don’t think I ever recovered. This was a world I wasn’t ready to enter. I could understand sex on the animal level. This was something else entirely. Something about the material, that plasticky sort of rubber, the look and touch, he made me touch it, and the whole nature and function of the thing, I don’t know, it was alien and unsettling. Sex alone was tough enough to encounter. This was technology they wanted to wrap around my dick. This was mass-produced latex they used to paint battleships.” (DeLillo, 110)

This is a cliched coming-of-age interaction between adolescent brothers, but the character’s reaction to the event is anything but cliché. And this is accomplished through the details. There’s an emotional response to seeing the condom, through having a sensory moment with it that progresses into the intellectual, through which some of the novel’s themes reveal themselves.

He got up and began to dress. He picked up a fashion magazine and held it open to a looming photo of some casually muscled bisexual, maybe a white guy, maybe not—dangled it over the bed as if to indicate how dated he was in his own body, his very life, Brian himself, a man without a fitness video to sling in the oblong groove.“Underwear. Everything, suddenly, is underwear,” he said. “Tell me what it means.” (DeLillo, 260)

A fashion magazine on a coffee table. A pretty standard finding in a modern setting, and a stock way to open up a diatribe. But, when the character holds the magazine up to himself and doesn’t begin to hold court on the decline of cultural standards like we expect him to, but instead simply demands to be told what this image means, the reader is invited to consider for his or herself what does it mean? The character’s helplessness, conveyed by his not even being able to ask for himself what it means but in having to ask the other person in the room to tell him what it means, deepens the reader’s engagement with the story by asking him or her to consider his or her relative position in such an evolving cultural climate. 6

I was driving a Lexus through a rustling wind. This is a car assembled in a work area that’s completely free of human presence. Not a spot of mortal sweat except, okay, for the guys who drive the product out of the plant—allow a little moisture where they grip the wheel. The system flows forever onward, automated to priestly nuance, every gliding movement back-referenced for prime performance. Hollow bodies coming in endless sequence. There’s nobody on the line with caffeine nerves or a history of clinical depression. Just the eerie weave of chromium alloys carried in interlocking arcs, block iron and asphalt sheeting, soaring ornaments of coachwork fitted and merged. Robots tightening bolts, programmed drudges that do not dream of family dead. It’s a culmination in a way, machines made and shaped outside the little splat of human speech. And this made my rented car a natural match for the landscape I was crossing. Heat shimmer rising on the empty flats. A bled-white sky with ticky breezes raking dust across the windshield. And the species factually absent from the scene—except for me, of course, and I was barely there. (DeLillo, 63)

These paragraphs open the first chapter of the book, and they do so beautifully and effectively because they immediately establish the feeling of the book as it is clearly bound up with its intellectual theme. Again, we have foreboding systems, the cult of technology, a cultural landscape, a vague sense of art being somehow present in all things man has put his hands to, and human helplessness, to name a few things present in all these passages. We get these through the character just musing about the car he’s driving. A car. It doesn’t get a whole lot more mundane or ordinary than that.

Throughout all of these passages, we get to see very intimately various characters’ world views through an ordinary situation. DeLillo uses these observations to drive his ideas home, to really get into the hearts and minds of his readers. We, too, can do the same thing by pulling details out of the things we take for granted and focusing on them in a critical way that reveals something to the reader.

There’s more to everything than we give credit, and pointing that out is one of our responsibilities as authors. We realize in the process of writing that no thing is really mundane: every thing is actually some thing when you stop to look at it, with a place and associations and a resulting significance. And once you’ve realized that in your writing, you’ll start to look at things differently as you go about your day-to-day life. And ideally, you can share that realization with your readers, and then they will lead their lives a little bit differently, too.


 

  1. And by suddenly I mean for the nth time.
  2. Or your readers.
  3. Shy of surrealism/magical realism/etc.
  4. Here’s a prompt a mentor of mine once gave me: have a character stand at a photocopier in an office space for 10 pages, never allowing the character to leave the room or interact with anyone else. Don’t use any cliches, and keep it interesting. This is a great exercise for learning how to really deal with the absurdly, excruciatingly mundane: you beat it at its own game. Repeat this exercise until you feel the character could leave the room and continue on with his or her day in the office and you could keep it blisteringly engaging without ever making anything happen, per se. And then write that, if you feel up to the challenge.
  5. I chose to cite examples from this book in particular because I think one of the things that makes DeLillo’s writing so good is his ability to effectively observe every thing thematically, making his novels work very well as a whole.
  6. A sneaky diatribe, of sorts.
  7. Following the 62-page Prologue.
  8. This might be the key verb in this essay, which encapsulates the whole idea behind it. Musing is from what many good examples of writing about the mundane spring.

 

Works Cited
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York, NY: Scribner, 1997. Print.


 

David Bumpus is obsessed with the absurd and the mundane. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles.  He has a parakeet and a motorcycle, respectively named Plato and Ifrit.   ABC’s of Writing

 

1 Comment

  1. Yeah. How do we get those characters out of the kitchen and into the freaking living room? This is great, thanks!

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