Your Story Needs Grit to Capture Your Audience

This is a guest post by author McKenna Dean

McKenna Dean has been many things, including an actress, a vet tech, a singer, a biologist, a teacher, and a dog trainer. All of which were just preparations for her real calling: being a writer. She likes putting her characters in hot water to see how strong they are. Like tea bags, only sexier.

Grist is a small amount of grit that made grinding wheat into flour easier back in the days when it was done by hand or with big stone wheels.

I have this saying, “Everything is grist for the mill.” By that, I mean that everything we experience, either good or bad, has the potential to wind up in one of our stories. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the midst of a terrible event and a cool, detached part of my mind is memorizing the details, nodding quietly and saying, “I’m going to use this in a story someday.”

No, I’m not going to relate the exact experience in identical detail. The events of my life aren’t going to translate word for word into the lives of my characters. When I do write that scene, it will be so transformed that even someone present at the original event wouldn’t recognize it. But anyone who has maintained a hospital vigil will immediately know what I mean when I mention walking down a corridor painted in celery-green, passing darkened rooms with just the light of the monitors to indicate there’s anyone there. They’ll recognize the stale coffee and the outdated magazines, and feel the hardness of the plastic orange plastic chairs. They’ll know what it is like to watch endless hours of cable TV or read a book cover to cover and not remember a single word.

Or perhaps the ‘grist’ is not in the imagery, but in the emotions triggered by an event. There’s a reason I tend to write older characters. I don’t think many young people have had the kinds of life experiences that I find make for interesting storytelling. So I enjoy writing stories about people who make their own families, or discover life is more than mere survival. I can relate to characters who feel as though they’ve never been able to be their real selves, or have to hide certain aspects of their lives. I empathize with characters who’ve struggled to pay the bills, or place undue expectations on themselves, or are filled with self-doubt. I think I have a pretty good handle on those emotions!

I think this is really what the sage advice, ‘write what you know’ really means. It doesn’t mean that you write about the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged woman. It means you write about the fear of losing a way of life deeply precious to you—even if that means leaving the comfort of that life in order to fight for it. That’s what some scholars think was behind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories. Think about it. How many of you fell in love with the Shire and wanted to live there yourself? Now imagine a great and terrible evil that is coming to destroy all that you love. Tolkien didn’t know Hobbits, but he knew war, and what a middle-aged man treasured and would fight to keep safe.

Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech at the University of the Arts in 2012 about ‘making Good Art’ out of the tragedies in our lives. This is a beautiful speech well worth listening to for a variety of reasons as he advises about a life as a creative being. He talks about all the things that could go wrong in our lives and urges his audience that whatever happens, Make Good Art. Do what you do best.

This past year has been difficult for me in many ways. I’ve had a great deal of personal loss, with several deaths in the family, among other things. I haven’t written as much as I would have liked. I lost a lot of time with a personal injury and family issues. Just when I thought I was dragging myself up on dry land after treading in the water of debt, I got hit with a bunch of new bills. If I put all the things that has happened to my family this past year alone in one story, no one would believe it, and people would accuse me of giving my fictional’ characters unrealistic traumas.

I recently came across this amazing post about writing an obituary for your previously bad year—why? Because everything sounds marvelous in an obituary! Then it occurred to me that we as writers are doing this all the time. We’re taking the bad things in our lives and giving our characters the resources and strength to deal with them. Much of the time we give them the happy ending we were denied. As Gaiman also once said, “Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.”

Those truths come from our own mills. Remember that when you think you’re better off without any grist. Life without grist might be easier, but it would make for a boring story. A tiny grain of sand, the smallest amount of grit imaginable, creates the irritation necessary for oysters to turn it into a pearl of great value. If you want your readers to remember, treasure, and value your stories, they need that grit.