As the saying goes, ‘Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.’ But for most of us, our lives don’t consist of car chases and explosions, or thrilling plot twists and tensely built narratives. Heck, most of us don’t even split our pants down the middle bending over for a dollar on the sidewalk. Instead, many people, writers included, live rather ordinary existences, filled with ordinary people and ordinary happenings. Yet if those in the know are always saying to write from experience, how is a writer supposed to offer anything exciting for a reader if all they have to go on is a bus trip and a mishap in the line at their favourite coffee store?
I suppose there are two options. One is to simply lie, or conjure a mistruth; pull someone’s leg, so to speak. You might sometimes hear a comedian begin a joke with: ‘So this happened to me the other day.’ It is a simple and often used prefix, a way to set up a narrative and contextualise the joke. But was there actually a hobo violently brandishing a fork and a can of beans on the bus? Did anyone actually make eye-contact with someone through a bathroom stall? Who knows, maybe the comedian really does freak out over toilet etiquette. But it might be a lie, the comedian simply wants to tell a funny story, so he or she makes it up. The audience understands the contract, yet some are still slightly miffed. It was funny, sure, but it didn’t feel real.
Some comedians, myself included, feel uncomfortable just blatantly telling fibs. They might prefer to draw from experience. There is a sense of pride in actually being a part of something that is zany enough to relate on stage. If I may paraphrase a good friend and fellow comedian, Marcel Blanch De-Wilt: ‘Male comedians love going to the doctors to get their testicles checked. All they’re thinking is, “Awesome, there’s some material in this.”’
So the other option is to find something in the banal. Search for the extra in the ordinary. Chart the happenings of your day-to-day. Dissect the characters in your life, really pick them apart and find out what makes them unique. Some of the best comedians I’ve supported, like Fiona O’loughlin or Peter Breen, spend minutes telling an audience about their kids or their jobs, seemingly everyday things. The end result, or the punch-line in this case, might be a complete fabrication, but it is built from truth and the audience can still appreciate the fiction with more enthusiasm.
Writing fiction can follow the exact same process. Find some truth in your life: people, places, coffee shops, customers. Scrutinise them all. These characters or places don’t necessarily need to come out as facsimiles of their real world counterparts, they just need to do enough to feel real. Write down the things you see, or the people you meet, extrapolate and consider what might make them tick, or what gets them out of bed in the morning. Examine the milieu of life and store it away for later use. Some of it might seem useless or extraneous, but keep it, because then you have it on hand, and who knows where your next inspired moment might come from. Even if you end up writing something that is entirely fantasy, like a speculative dystopian fiction, you will still have these ordinary and seemingly arbitrary things to fill your world with.
Readers, just like the audiences who watch stand-up comedy, appreciate and respond to truth. So give them some. You might be surprised at how interesting and extraordinary your ordinary life might be. And if your pants really do split down the middle while you’re bending over for a dollar, then all the better.
Piri Eddy is a writer, actor, musician and comedian. Having recently graduated with first class honours in creative writing at Flinders University, Piri has had several works published online, including short fiction and reviews for both book and theatre. He has worked extensively in local theatre as a performer and writer, and as a creative director. His latest production was the collaborative comedy and sketch show Comedy Action Rangers that he co-wrote and performed at the 2013 Adelaide Fringe. Piri has written and performed comedy since 2010 both in the Adelaide Fringe and through the Adelaide Comedy circuit. He is currently the SAWC Writer in Residence.