NATALIE GOLDBERG in her fine book for writers, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, reminds us of a truth that applies to far more than writing. Put simply, she reminds us that the garbage of our life makes some of the best story material of all.
Admittedly, one should be alert to Goldberg’s Zen leanings. Her frequent quotes of Buddhist sages and Zen masters leave no doubt where she looks for ultimate meaning. With that said, her following observation is one from which we could all gain:
We collect experiences, and from the decomposition of thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves. Coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil blooms our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.
Her point is that the best stories are not those born out of some writing conference class or book but rather out of life. And life isn’t neat or instant. Even if you haven’t experienced great tragedy or failure in your life there is still plenty of refuse: broken promises, unrealized dreams, and inner failings.
Paul Billheimer said it best in the title of his excellent devotional book – Don’t Waste Your Sorrows. Coming from a different spiritual perspective but to the same conclusion, Billheimer seeks to remind us that nothing in one’s life is worthless. The scraps of life can become the makings of rich compost. And it is that compost that makes for the richest story material.
The Apostle Paul put it this way:
We do not become discouraged (utterly spiritless, exhausted, and wearied out through fear). Though our outer man is [progressively] decaying and wasting away, yet our inner self is being [progressively] renewed day after day. For our light, momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory [beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!], Since we consider and look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are visible are temporal (brief and fleeting), but the things that are invisible are deathless and everlasting. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (Amplified)
No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I keep seeing bits and pieces of myself in the characters of my stories. Be it fiction or non-fiction, the compost of my life keeps providing the best possible writing material. My joys, fears, successes, failures, hopes, and disappointments are all there in the characters, ideas, plots, and themes of what I write.
So what do you do with that compost pile of fragments of past experiences? Remember that every chance encounter, every failed relationship, every good and bad thing in your life need not go to waste. Given to the Master Gardner that refuse can become the stuff of which He writes a story of redemption, and hope, and purpose.
We may not all be writers but we all have a story. What is yours being written with?