Grist for the Mill

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How many times have you been told, when going through a rough patch in life, “Well, it’s grist for the mill.” That phrase never helps me when someone else says it. Only when I say it.

For those who don’t know, grist is grain that has been separated from the chaff (outer husk), leaving the kernels ready to be ground into flour.

Today I use my Vitamix to grind wheat berries into flour, but in the old days, oxen walked around and around a big stone where people threw their wheat, to be ground into flour by another enormous round stone. Later, windmills powered the grinding stones to make flour. Wind powering a mill. Windmill.


For an author, the real milling happens internally. Authors are quirky people, very interesting to talk to (if you can get them alone and not in a crowd) because they live lives of grand events, they feel passionately, and grind their experiences into a fine powder and then play it out on the page.

Very few people have a book published prior to acquiring a few gray hairs. This is because we have to live life, we have to experience a vast landscape of people, events, relationships, emotions; we need grist that we can ponder, from which we extract the kernel that will become fiction worth reading.

My friend, romance writer Susan Wiggs says the hardest scene ever to write is that of a woman crying. She’s right. Most authors cheat and say something like “tears ran down her cheeks.” Well, that’s just not right. It’s passive, it’s likely from the wrong point of view, it tells the reader NOTHING. It is only those of us who have experienced gut-blasting, heart-exploding grief, where it feels like a heart attack, it feels like asphyxiation, the kind of grief where we’re certain we’re going to die–who can write a scene that a reader will get on the emotional level that we intend. On a human level. Not every woman crying scene deserves all of that, but it deserves a corner of it.

And yet, we can’t write that while it’s raw. We have to grind it. We have to absorb it into our personalities, make it part of our total human experience. We have to portion it out in this scene and in that scene, knowing that the depth of our personal experience is so vast that we can draw on those experiences for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sometimes, of course, we have to write it raw. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. But that writing is not for publication. That is merely the record of the grist entering the mill. The finished story or novel is the finished, baked bread. As you know, good bread needs leavening. That takes time.

So when you go through something terrifying, horrible, or devastating, and someone else, knowing you’re a writer, tosses it off by saying, “it’s just grist for the mill,” realize that they’re trying to comfort you. They don’t mean to invite a slap across the chops. They know you’re a writer, someone who feels everything intensely, and that someday you will indeed use this unexpected windfall of wild grain in your mill to bake a loaf of something delicious that they will enjoy.

Writing Emotion

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I heard my friend Susan Wiggs say one time that the hardest thing in the world to write was the scene of a woman crying. I was happy to hear that, because that is also my experience.

I have no patience with scenes that have tears running down a point of view character’s face without any precipitating, gut-wrenching emotion. And that is damned hard to write.

I don’t know about you, but occasionally I have a genuine, world-class meltdown. When that happens, it’s hard to step out of myself to view my emotions so that I might capture the physical sensations along with the “fuck you and the horse you rode in on” attitude, but occasionally, I am able to do that. The physicality of a good cry is delicate and profound.

But those things that make us cry are not the only emotions that we—and our fictional characters—have. We have the blushing madness of infatuation, we have the soul-crushing realization of having been betrayed, we have the satisfaction of achieving something we never thought we would be able to do, we have nagging suspicions that drive us to obsession. We engage in fantasies far beyond what is healthy. We justify ourselves into true delusions (I can handle a couple of cocktails. I don’t eat that much ice cream. They’re just nickel slots—how bad could it get? I know he’s married, but…). All of these things come with intense physical reactions that many writers ignore for the expediency of either telling instead of showing, or just letting those tears run down a cheek.

But if you’re going to craft something truly worthy of your talents, you must step into the skin of your point of view character and describe exactly what he/she is feeling as well as thinking, and you must do it without “she felt” and “she thought”. Be it. Live it.

Let the tears not fall down her cheeks, but into your keyboard.

It’s harder than you know, but then you’ll have that satisfaction that I mentioned, and someday you will write about that, too.