Thursday 8 March 2012

From the Mundane to the Sublime: a guest blog by Magdalena Ball

I know you're all probably wondering how my trip to Canada was (WONDERFUL! And I miss Dawn like hell already). And if you follow me on Facebook, you probably know my flight back home was cancelled twice and I spent two days in airport limbo. I am probably still on the plane as you read this as I scheduled it while waiting at Heathrow airport!

But I'll give you more details next week because today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Magdalena Ball. She is an amazing author and I am a HUGE fan of her work. And this blog post is a part of her blog tour for her latest novel, Black Cow.

Drum roll ... welcome Maggie!

As a writer, I've always been intrigued by the mundane. By mundane, I'm thinking, not of dull or tedious, but rather of it's alternative meaning of being 'of this earthly world', secular, temporal. These are the details of our lives - those things that other readers will recognise - the day to day world that surrounds us. Most of the time we're too busy to stop the endless doing and observe and perceive. But this is a writer's job. To look closely at those moments and allow them to morph into something extraordinary. Morph? What is that? Are we talking magic realism or sci fi here? No, this is real life, such as the observation of a common beetle or bird in the garden - something utterly ordinary. In that moment where we turn our gaze deeply into the thing, we suddenly transcend the limits of our human condition and see things with a certain transformative eye where the detail contains the whole.In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg puts it this way: "Go so deep into something that you understand its interpenetration with all things. Then automatically the detail is imbued with the cosmic; they are interchangeable." That all sounds grand and esoteric, so how, specifically, as writers, do we create this kind of transcendence, without making the work so dense that it loses its connection to the everyday?

Here are a few tips:

• Use of point of view. We all come to each situation we find ourselves in with a welter of memories, issues we're currently grappling with, and desires. In short, at any moment we're all in the 'midst of life'. If you take that 'midst', in other words the situation of your characters, and filter it into those things that surround them - the butterfly landing on their hand, the rain that just won't stop, or even the dishes that are being done, the mundane suddenly is infused with the whole of your character perspective. In the early twentieth century, this tended to sit with stream of consciousness writing, where the inner thoughts of characters become apparent to the reader, but it doesn't have to be a random stream. Those thoughts can be anchored in the moment, and reasonably logical, while still coasting across all those desires that make up any character.

 • Step out of the stream. Stop for a moment and let your characters see the bigger picture. You can do this with a third person narrator, or just allow the characters a momentary glimpse at the bigger picture. For example, a young girl may be struggling with bullying, but just for a moment in the midst of the highest conflict, give her a glimpse of the future or even of the broader context of her life and let her see the pain she's struggling with for what it is - momentary and transient. Those kinds of epiphanies are the stuff of character transformation and will progress the story perfectly.

• Use symbols. Symbols do exactly what we're talking about here. They turn the mundane into the sublime, by referring to something else. An office cubicle or conference room might symbolise oppression. A tourist visit to the Statue of Liberty might symbolise freedom. A bird song or plot of dirt might symbolise freedom or getting back to roots or even shaking off a depression that has become overwhelming.

All of these things are subtle, and have to be dealt with carefully, with poetic skill. But being able to use the everyday to hint at a deeper meaning; a secret sub-story below the surface, is what makes art. As readers, we instinctively look for it in the books we read. As writers, we're always aiming to create it.

Magdalena Ball is the author of the newly released novel Black Cow. Grab a free mini e-book brochure here.

For more about Magdalena visit her website.



  1. Hi Jessica and Magdalena!
    I'm enchanted by your view~ Fab post, I do think creative types do unearth the treasures of ordinary!
    Congrats on your new release; I'll be by to visit your blog~ Good Luck on your tour~

    Jessica I hope you homeward bound. Flying can rattle the best of nerves~

  2. I need to start using symbols more.

  3. I know how it is to spend that much time in airports...last time I came back from Canada I had 7 different flights. haha. Had never been so glad to get home!

    Congrats Magdalena on your book!!

  4. Great post! I especially like the advice to step out of the stream! Just thinking that thought - I had multiple ideas for my characters. Thank you!

    Hope you're home safe and sound now! I'm not in the least surprised you loved Canada - best place in the world (I'm just a teensy bit biased :))

  5. Glad you're back, Jessica! Thanks so much for hosting me today and for everything really - you're the best. Thanks Ella, Alex, Trisha and Jemi for your comments.

  6. Thanks Jessica and Maggie. Excellent. Best wishes. Neil

  7. Thanks, ladies, for sharing this. I like these ideas; the wheels are already turning in my head!

  8. Wow, so much to think about. GREAT post! And I have to say, that bug picture freaks me out a little. He he. :)

  9. wonderful suggestions. I liked the one to show your characters a bigger picture.


“I'm using my art to comment on what I see. You don't have to agree with it.” ~John Mellencamp

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