Writing About the Little Things in Life

(Originally published as my weekly column for The Beach Reporter on 4/30/92. I like how I compared myself to Art Buchwald and not Erma Bombeck…)

When I first started this column more than four years ago, I thought my subject matter would probably be drawn from the headlines of the day. I would write thought-provoking commentaries on the weighty issues of the world, and dazzle everyone with my insight and my ability to turn that insight into sizzling prose.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming the Art Buchwald of the South Bay.
When I sat down at my computer each week, often the most pressing issue on my mind was not what was on the news that night. Rather, I was more likely to be mulling over the fact that it was swimsuit season again and I needed either major surgery or a nice caftan. Or I would be reflecting on the joys (?) of motherhood and why it was that my children refused to eat anything green.

Sometimes I do write about newsworthy topics. I feel that some of my best columns have been on how women live with violence, on the beer ads that dominate television, on the death of Ryan White, and on the commercialization of the Gulf War.
However, the columns that my readers seem to like the best (yes, I do get letters and phone calls and I love them all, even the negative ones) are the ones I consider to be about the most mundane aspects of life. Columns that I thought were brilliantly illuminating drew nary a response. But when I wrote about how I didn’t have time to sew a missing button on my shorts, I got the most comments I have ever received.

As a writer it took me a while to get comfortable with the idea that anyone could possibly be interested in husbands trying to iron shorts, or how you can’t call in sick when you’re a mom. Would anyone care about the power struggle between a husband and wife during a garage sale? Would anyone want to read about toddlers who ask 100 questions an hour or spouses who can’t find car keys?

Let’s face it. Most of our lives aren’t the stuff of Hollywood. Day to day we are stuck with the reality of car pools, kids with dental problems, overdue library books, and the onslaught of cellulite. In and of themselves, nothing spectacular.

These minutiae are, however, the details that constitute a life. The little things that illuminate the Big Picture. Life’s daily occurrences can be dissected, examined, and held up as a metaphor for deeper-felt emotions.

So, when I sat down to write about how I just couldn’t find the time to sew a missing button on my shorts, that became a metaphor for all the things I don’t have time for. When I wrote about my mother coming to “babysit” while my husband and I went on vacation, it became a way for me to illuminate the underlying emotions I felt about my mother.

Perhaps if I get the details right, the universal truth will come out somewhere. As a writer, that is what I strive for. If I succeed one time out of ten, I will be happy.

The best thing anyone ever said to me about a column was, “It made me laugh and cry at the same time.” I think it was a column about Mother’s Day, or maybe about my sister’s wedding. Neither column was about a pressing world issue. Yet the reader was able to connect because she, too, had experienced the same emotions but hadn’t given expression to them.

One woman wrote to me a while ago and asked if I had been peeking into her living room window because I knew exactly how she felt about motherhood, marriage, and “just things in general.” Another woman told me I must be living her life because I knew exactly how she felt about so many things.

My favorite column of the past four years, written about a short summer’s vacation to the beach begins, “I am writing this in the bathroom at the Crescent Bay Motel in Laguna Beach. I am eating M&Ms from the bag and sipping Miller Lite from a flimsy plastic cup. There is a large crack in the shower door and it is rusty. The paint on the walls is peeling and there are cigarette burns in the linoleum around the toilet. I feel fairly certain that no one has ever sat in the bathroom of this motel and written a newspaper column at 11:00 p.m. on a hot Monday night.”

Nothing earth-shattering, but it does get you in the mood.

Not that I would ever put myself in the same league as Anne Tyler, but I consider her to be the high priestess of turning the mundane into the metaphysical. A simple car trip illuminates a marriage. A carelessly spoken accusation causes a suicide and changes the lives of an entire family. She could probably write a novel on sorting socks for the laundry and make it fascinating.

Fifty-two times a year I write my little essays and share with you readers the intimacies of my life. I no longer seek the universal truth, but rather hope that you will find your own truth out of something I wrote.

By the way, I never did sew that button on.

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