Monday, January 30, 2012

Where Elizabeth Berg Finds Inspiration

I just finished reading Elizabeth Berg's captivating collection of short stories, Ordinary Life. I was drawn in immediately her portrayals of everyday men and women, struggling with the ups and downs of ordinary living and loving. The Boston Globe raved, "Elizabeth Berg's gift as a storyteller lies most powerfully in her ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, the remarkable in the everyday."

I think that could be a challenge for all of us writers: how can we imbue the ordinary with a sense of extraordinary in our work?

About ten years ago I was fortunate enough to get the chance to meet Elizabeth Berg when she gave a talk at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I went up and introduced myself to her afterwards, and after she had signed my book -- her terrific novel Durable Goods -- I asked if she had any advice for a young writer like me. She gave me some of my most cherished writing advice, words I find myself turning to again and again: "First, please yourself." The older I get and the more I write, the deeper this advice rings true to me.

In an interview at the end of her story collection Ordinary Life, Berg discusses where she finds inspiration for her stories and novels:

Ideas come from life: what happens in mine, what I see happening in others', mixed with a great deal of imagination. I might see a person in a grocery store and build a whole character and life out of what's in her basket. I might read a newspaper story about a guy on a bus and build a family for him. I might get a phone call from an old boyfriend and it might raise a lot of "what if" questions that become material. I might watch people in a bar, overhear a piece of a conversation. material is all around, all the time. Pots are boiling on all four burners. The only thing I have to do is feel in the mood to cook, which I usually do. Once I get a vague idea, I let the story write itself. When I write, I operate as a writer and a reader both -- I never know what's going to happen.

Do you write this way, too -- as a "writer and reader both"? Or are you more of the outlining type? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

I'll close with a final passage from Elizabeth Berg's "Author's Note" at the end of Ordinary Life:

I love these stories the way I love my novels, which is rather how I love my children. My children are not perfect, but they are perfect. These stories are not perfect either, but they are the best I could do to portray certain life events, to illuminate certain ways of thinking, to illustrate the way we can get from here to there, or document some interesting insights. More than anything, they are meant to celebrate the extraordinary moments and events that make up ordinary life.

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