I’m generally of the mind to take the phrase “write what you know” with a grain of salt. I’m a fantasy writer, even if the “fantasy” means the daydreams of a high school kid. But with several of my jobs, I’ve spent more than a few days saying “oh god, if I wrote a book about what happens here…”
As you may have noticed, I’ve started doing this with the café I work with.
Most of my retail/customer service jobs have evoked similar reactions in me, and that’s not surprising in the long run. People-watching is a common hobby for writers, and what better way to watch people than have them come up to you all the time and need things from you? They practically write their own stories.
In many ways, it’s a perfect way to study the concepts of “good” and “evil” in day to day life. It’s easy to write good and evil when you think in terms of Voldemort and Lily Potter. But most people don’t ever come across people who are completely evil or totally good. And since I’m on a Harry Potter kick, I have a perfect example of how we use more normal “evils” to tell the story.
Because that’s why everyone hates Umbridge. She’s the evil we all know. She’s the teacher we always thought was unfair. She’s the coworker who took advantage of everything she possibly could. She’s a real evil, one we can see in our world. And those are the ones who affect us the most. I’ve seen it in Jeph Jacques’ comic Questionable Content lately as well, which calls to me particularly since it takes place in a café. Jeph has taken to Twitter a few times lately, asking things like “what is the most annoying complicated drink anyone could ask you to make” or “how much would this exceedingly stupid complicated drink cost?” In the comic from March 22nd, a woman comes in holding a small dog, is talking on her cell phone, asks for an absurdly complicated drink, and then expects Hannelore to get the money to pay for it out of her (the customer’s) wallet.
I’ve come across most of these occasions in my time working at my café as well. It’s just as frustrating as Hanners looks like it is.
Sure, what I ran into back when I worked at Grocery Store isn’t the same as what I see at Café, but it’s all human interaction where you (or I, in this scenario) are in a different interaction-caste from who you are interacting with. Server/customer, cashier/shopper, cake-decorator/cake-buyer, guard/inhabitant. They all have the barrier of the one serving and the one being served, and we’ve seen stories from both sides. I’ve seen plenty of stories about servers who have been either terrible or fantastic to their customers, and vice versa. I’m just chronicling my own.
In many ways, it’s the perfect writing prompt for an author who’s struggling. Go somewhere. Anywhere where you will find other people. Go to a park, or the store, or the mall, or even just start paying attention around the office. Pick up a random piece of conversation that you hear out of context. Figure out the story behind it. Was someone particularly nice/mean to you? Storify it. In many ways, that’s how my non-fanfiction writing got started. People were mean to me in school, and I took it out on fictional versions of them on my computer. I’m not going to get detention for punching a kid through a window on my computer. (I don’t think I ever punched someone out a window in a story. Definitely punched some people though.)
There’s no true excuse for writer’s block. Sure, maybe you’ve hit a wall or plateau with whatever project you’re working on. Do you have any other projects? Go poke at one of them for a few days. Better yet, write something completely different; that’s where these real-life prompts come in.
I feel like everyone’s probably had at least one thing happen to them that made them go “Oh my god, you have to hear what happened to me at work/etc today.”
So why not tell the story?