Seeking the Strange in the Familiar

There is no good reason for me to ever be bored. I live on a rock that is hurtling through space at 30 kilometers per second; I am technically on a thrill ride every day of my life, soaring through space and time, a ride that like any roller coaster will someday end.

So why is it so hard to know it at every moment? Why does life ever seem dull? Why do I obsess over trivialities? Why do I grumble when I lose a sock in the dryer? Why do feel angry at life when I am unable to find the lead on a roll of paper towels?

I lose perspective. However, when I write, I try my best to regain it. As a writer I am constantly trying to wake myself up from the illusion that the world is a tedious, permanent, and predictable place; this is partly because I hate being bored, and partly because stories that assume life is inherently dull are unlikely to move anyone, including me. When I write, I want to go where the passion and the awe is.

One way to make life – and writing – more interesting is to change perspectives often. Because I want my writing to stay fresh, I am always searching new angles from which to see the world.

My writing benefits from anything new I learn, especially if it challenges what I think I know. Science in particular is good for that; it reveals a world that defies common sense expectations.

Quantum mechanics describes a world more bizarre than Alice in Wonderland where electrons can be in two places at once. Science offers a treasure trove of endless fascination for writers willing to delve into it; it paints a veneer of strangeness over the most ordinary objects and experiences.

Studying science moves me beyond stereotypical reactions to nature. My ordinary, knee-jerk response to a maple leaf is “ooh, pretty.” And it may be. However, if I stop to think about what leaves actually do and why they exist, they take on intriguing new dimensions .

Unlike animals, plants are able to make food from sunlight, and usually it is their leaves that do the work. Plants were here long before we were. Without them, humans and most animals would die. In my story “The Age of Erring” my child protagonist gets ridiculed for asking the question: Are plants smarter than people since they, and not people, are able to turn sunlight into food? Food is becoming scarce on her world, so the question – while it sounds silly – is important.

As a teenager my character undertakes an experiment in which she discovers that plants can do a lot more than she ever realized, and that they contain hidden knowledge that has the potential to save her imperiled world.

Other writers have been inspired by scientific findings that defy expectations. Madeline L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, said that she was struggling with her novel until a friend sent her some scientific findings about mitochondria, which power human cells but have their own DNA. The findings fascinated her, and afterward, she claims, her classic Newberry-Award-winning book practically wrote itself. (See her essay, “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?)

Other subjects besides science can bring about the perspective shifts I love. In philosophy, no assumption is too sacred to be challenged, including the assumption that anything actually exists. History makes me aware of the passage of time going back way before I was born; it illuminates why the world is the way it is. It reminds me that everything that exists from napkins to cats has a past. Remembering that adds dimension – and strangeness –  to everything I see.

Actively looking for the strange in the familiar triggers creativity.  It flings aside the curtain of mundane unreality to reveal deeper truths. Our boring sun that we have seen every day for our entire lives is actually a star; from light years away, it would look like just another blinking dot. The body I take for granted is made of atoms, which are mostly empty space, so what am I? When curtains of old assumptions fall away, the sudden shift of perspective wakes me up, engenders awe. And sometimes it makes me want to write.

Some writers are inspired by Big Foot, ESP, and conspiracy theories, but real life is weird enough for me, and I have creative ways of making it even weirder. Viewing the ocean from the top of a Ferris Wheel or listening to music from underwater inspires me. Visiting new places gives me a fresh perspective on familiar ones.

But changing perspectives does more. It lifts me out of the mundane.; it keeps me from losing sight of the big picture so that I am less inclined to grumble about over-priced cat litter, creeping scale readings, and all the inconveniences which create the myth that life is stable and tedious.

In terms of writing technique, changing point of view can put a fresh emotional spin on any story event.

When I was in the sixth grade my teacher would once a week give the class a creative writing assignment to write from the points of view of different animals like a flea, or sometimes even objects like a chair.

I loved trying to imagine what the world would look like from the point of view of a flea; I imagined how long dog fur would look tree-like to such a tiny creature. I even imagined what it would be like to be a chair and my outrage at the indignity of people burdening me with their weight

Although I could never know exactly what it feels like to be a flea (or a chair), the exercise drove home the lesson that there is not just one world, but many, depending on who is doing the observing.

If I ever feel blocked while writing a story, switching points of view breathes new life into it. Suppose, for example, that my story is about a farmer who is murdered. What would the event look like from the point of view of his toddler son who is unfamiliar with the concept of death? What about his mother who is only visiting to bring her son a casserole? What about the chickens? Would a chicken deplore the act after witnessing the grisly fate of its siblings? Each point of view essentially creates a different story, even though the objective event is the same.

To write fiction is to inhabit a world of shifting reality, of paradoxes, of ironies and oxymorons. It means seeking the mystery beneath the obvious, the strange in the familiar, and beauty in places no one expects to see it. In my experience the ordinary always contains the extraordinary. The mission of a writer is to find it.

If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my story collection “Remembering the Future” is available for purchase on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Seeking the Strange in the Familiar

  1. You knew I’d love that L’Engle reference, didn’t you? She named one of her literary cats “Quantum” – what a great name, eh? I have her essay on my Kindle but I’ve never read it – I know, I’m terrible. It’s on my bucket list to read it *and* understand it!!!!!

    Your posts always have fantastic lines, and this one grabbed my because its veracity made me laugh:

    “Some writers are inspired by Big Foot, ESP, and conspiracy theories, but real life is weird enough for me…”

    Amen to that, my dear friend!

    • Thanks so much for your comment Dyane!!! I’m so happy you liked my post! As for the L’Engle essay, I actually downloaded it on my Kindle because you had mentioned it to me once on Twitter! It’s a really inspiring essay. I’ve read it three times. You should definitely read it when you get a chance.
      I’ve been reading the Emily of New Moon series, which you also recommended. I’m loving it! I’m on the second book now. I can’t get over the beautiful, richly textured imagery L.M. Montgomery uses. It’s the type of writing I strive for in my own ficton. And I love that Emily dreams of being a writer. The character is great. I can see why the books are such classics.

      And I love the name “Quantum” for a cat! An author that would name her cat Quantum is my kind of writer!! XOXO

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