Essay Five

The beauty of the ordinary

You might, quite possibly, be sitting there with a photograph and a postcard in front of you, ready to make notes, but you’re thinking: Who am I to share my stories, my everyday moments? My life is ordinary. I have nothing of interest to write about. I cannot think of a single thing.

Well, to you I say: define ordinary. My life is what we might call ordinary too - a married mother of three who gave up her journalism career to look after her children - but, boy, do I have stories in me to tell. And these are not crazy, hair-raising adventures or psychological thrillers or run-ins with the police. No. I manage to find stories in my everyday, whether that’s writing about a child who picks at his food or what it feels like when I see our collective reflection or remembering the time I sat by the fire in my childhood home and saw my heartbroken mother grieve. I believe those moments are worth something. Your moments must mean something to you too; I know they do.

It may be that your life story is woven with the stories of others; little people, parents, partners. It may be that your life story is written into the landscape of your home, a country you fell in love with, a place that binds you to your past. Though it may seem ordinary to you, believe me, there are stories in all of these things, all of these places, no matter how habitual they might appear to be.

I would argue that we need more stories about the ordinary because we are all looking for something we can relate to. I would argue that people want to see themselves in the books and the blog posts and the features and the articles they read. I know I do. Sometimes, I might reach for a book because I want to be reminded of who I once was. Other times, I look for something to read because I want to know I’m not the only one that feels a certain way or thinks a certain thought. Writing about our so-called ordinary lives reaches into these cracks of the everyday. It gives us something to wrap up, to keep safe. It is generous to write in this way because when we write about these things, these ordinary things, we are giving others a chance to find bits of themselves or of people they once loved or knew or passed in the street too; and I happen to think people need this. Even the smallest of ordinary choices we must make every single day can be daunting. Sometimes, it’s enough to know you’re not alone.

You might think you have nothing to write because you’re… a mother or a housewife or you lost your job or you live alone or you’re an only child or you’re an accountant or a lawyer. On the contrary; you have everything to say. You have a mind and a perspective and an imagination and a memory and experiences etched upon your heart that only you know. You have everything with which to begin to write.

You may not be a celebrity or a huge social media influencer. You may not have made a multi-billion pound business by the time you turned twenty-three. Your life may not be the fodder of sensational stuff. But that is not to say that you do not have any life story to tell.

So start with your ordinary. By this I do not mean, tell me about every single moment of your day. This is writing after all; I don’t need your diary of appointments followed by and then, and then, and then.  I don’t need to know what you had for breakfast or what time you took your train. But if you cried into your breakfast, then yes, that I want to know. If you missed your train because you happened to be lost in a book, then tell me what that felt like instead, to be so swept away. Or maybe you were busy trying to catch some good-looking stranger’s eye. Tell me. Tell me about those ordinary times you still remember.

We need more stories about the ordinary because I believe, living the way we do with curated feeds and lives styled to perfection, we need more stories about living honestly. So, then, be honest with yourself too. Ask yourself difficult questions, not for the sake of spilling it on a page, but to try to understand who you once were, or who you are now, or just to keep in touch with yourself. Ask yourself the stuff we don’t talk about - what or who makes you feel vulnerable or angry or happy or uplifted or ambivalent or heartbroken or in love? What do you regret? Who do you regret? Why? Are you happy? Why? Or why not? What would you have done if you didn’t marry him, hadn’t kissed her, got that promotion, bought that house, moved away, signed those papers? Ask yourself what or who has shaped you, shapes you still, and then take a postcard and write it down.

Still find it tricky to begin? Here’s a trick from my course The Quiet Words: confess what you want to say. Start by writing “There’s something I have to tell you…” and with any luck, all of a sudden, what you want to say might start to come easier.  

I cannot give you any other writing prompts for this other than: look inside yourself, because the answers to those questions, the difficult ones we don’t normally ask of ourselves or of each other, will be the sort of answers that might mean something. We think we are ordinary but we are walking with emotions in our hearts and our heads and in our mouths. You must be prepared to look into yourself, in order to uncover the truth of the stories you must write, the stories you must share. From the ordinary comes moments that will move you. I can only hope that I’ve inspired you to take one step there.

But back to breakfast!

A note of caution: when you are telling your story or sharing your memories, you do not need to start at the very literal beginning.

We don’t need to know when or where you were born or what you had for breakfast if it has nothing to do with what was in your mind or heart or head when you opened that letter that made you punch the air or when you ran down the street after that guy or bumped into that car. Writing your memories, or dare I say it, writing your memoir (or even just thinking about it) is not the same as an autobiography, a full-blown chronology of an entire life in chapters, something best saved for someone rightly and dazzlingly famous like Michelle Obama.

Postcards Home is not about writing a full-blown memoir; it is about starting small. But in a way, the notion of memoir, of writing personally, is where Postcards Home is steering you. Memoirs capture memories and moments, but they do so with intention. They serve to tell us a story, show us a shift, let us into a perspective that changed you somehow. And in this context, memories can jump backwards and forwards. They can come and go, because they do come and go.

In my opinion, at least, a memoir is not so much about the person writing it (unlike an autobiography) so much as it is about capturing a moment in time and writing of how it shaped them somehow, changed them even. And that’s what memories do. They mean something to us, because they shaped us. One moment here, another there. When you write of your memories, then, whether in blog form or in the chapter of a memoir, we can read of who you once were and then of who you are now. We don’t need everything pieced together for us, all in a row, filled in with your date of birth or the address of your first home or what you had for breakfast (again). Let your reader follow your lead. Focus on the moment, not on the prequel. Focus on the detail, not on the facts that make up a minute-by-minute account.

It would be easy to start at the very beginning and end at the very end. Because, let’s face it, unless you are Michelle Obama, it would also be incredibly dull to both write and read.

Let the moments that you write about tell a story; that is, let them illustrate a feeling, a turning point, a sense of reflection. Don’t let them be collected merely for the sake of it. There is naturally a big dollop of common sense in this. Let’s say you want to write about your family, about your parents’ heritage, perhaps, so that your children have a sense of who they are. But you don’t need to start by telling us everything about where your parents were born or when or what year they booked their flights to immigrate. You don’t need to tell us their history. But tell us about the moments of love between you, or the moments of misunderstanding instead. These are the moments that tell a story. Or if that seems too hard, then tell us about the food you grew up with instead, tasting flavours that unravelled their own tales. What I’m trying to say is: moments will bring a story to life more than plain old factual history of who did what, when. Show those moments to make them come to life.

How? Well, when you write, when you implement your power of observation, when you perfect the craft of cataloguing your everyday in a way which is sensitive and heightened and self-aware - in short, when you practice noting down everything that I have written about in Postcards Home so far, the easier it will be. The more you grow into the habit of using words, of writing them down every single day, the easier it will be to find the more memorable ones, the more beautiful ones, the more unusual ones. Turn to your stack of postcards. Everything is already half-written for you. It’s almost all already there.


Notes to remember

Our ordinariness is what connects us. The way our relationships unravel or stick strong like superglue; the way we make our homes; the books we read. Everything we do, the way in which we do it, demonstrates our perspectives on life, on love, on loss. We need each other’s perspectives. Embrace ordinariness and make it beautiful through your words.

When you think back on your memories, as you catalogue the ones that mean something to you upon your postcards, don’t be chronological. Focus on the whatness that will bring them to life.

Next week

A final essay on looking onwards, as we bring Postcards Home to an end.


Postcards Home

On postcards; or, staying in touch

Mini-memories, in note form

The little things

A life lived in pictures

The beauty of the ordinary