Before You Sit Down to Write (2014-05-13 Daily)
BEFORE YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE
David C. Hughes
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
–Henry David Thoreau
I am very self-aware. I’m well acquainted with every ache in my body, from the stiffness in my neck to the grumbling of my feet, from the joy in my present to the angst of my past. Because of this awareness, I can appreciate when life is clicking along without a hitch or sway, and I can also tell when something’s just not quite right, perhaps due to the stress of worry, the two-mile walk around the neighborhood, or the half bottle of sauvignon blanc I consumed last night. Whether the moment is offering me a thrill or a challenge, I strive to live life vividly.
Because of this sentience, my fictional (and non-fictional) characters are also in tune with their bodies, their motivations, and their actions as I capture their movements, thoughts, and expressions on the canvas of college-ruled paper. One evening, years ago, I finished reading one of my short stories out loud to a dozen writers at our weekly read-and-critique group. As my fellow scribes took turns helping me grow in my craft, one of them said, “You are very self-aware, and your self-awareness is evident on the page.”
Awareness, both inward and outward, is crucial for a writer. It’s imperative to live life deliberately with intense awareness of life’s infinite details. A writer must live in the moment, something I admit I’m not very good at as my mind has a tendency to wander into the future along the crooked path of fear, or slip behind the curtain of past regrets. As a writer, though, I strive to wrap all five senses around a moment, squeezing every drop of vibrancy from it until its essence is assimilated into my lifeblood. Then, to satisfy my continual urging to express, I dip my pen into this reservoir of experiences, stir them up with metaphor and simile and narrative and dialog, and scroll my utterances onto the page.
Practicing this art full-time has forced me to try to pay attention to everything, experience everything, absorb and process everything. I revel in my daughter’s sense of humor, and I sail around the room as she expresses a deep-rooted joy through her interpretation of interpretive dance. It excites me when she makes connections during a homeschooling session, and it chokes me up when I stare into the calmness of her sleeping face. I notice my wife’s pensiveness in the set of her lips, her giddiness in the staccato of her laugh, her love for me in the tilt of her head and the depth of her embrace. The strength of her fingers exorcises pain from my shoulders and summons peace and contentment from the depths of our common purpose.
When I first read Henry David Thoreau’s take on the writing life more than 25 years ago, it deeply offended me. His presumption that I had not yet lived drove deep into the heart of my pride. I flushed when I read it, anger rising in my throat as I cursed the philosopher’s blatant attack against my dream. “I am a writer!” I defended, voice cracking. “I am!” Back then, however, I lived almost purely in my imagination and emotion, awash in hormones and fantasy. Clueless, I functioned in the shallowness of inexperience, with no expressive grounding in reality. I was a writer as two-dimensional as Flat Stanley; I had no depth, no real wisdom to draw on, no foundation of living on which to build anything believable. My writer’s handbag contained no pallet of connectedness with which to paint sweeping metaphors, no database of analogy to create effective similes. But, like Flat Stanley, I sought adventure. And so I learned to collect experiences.
Deep down I’m a hoarder. I believe all writers are, to some degree, collectors. Mary complains about the stacks of boxes taking up room on the tops shelves of our bedroom closet and overflowing into the attic. These boxes contain more than old notebooks, G.I. Joes, and model airplane engines; they contain experiences. They bulge with stories. Every day I write down snippets of dialog and interesting quotes. I seek experience, I take notes, I transcribe whole conversations. I look people in the eye and listen to their souls. I collect memories.
It’s a funny quirk, but I suck at memorizing things. Mary astonishes me with her ability to pick up song lyrics after hearing a tune once or twice. I couldn’t repeat the words to a song even after thirty or forty repetitions! My own poetry remains stuck on the paper as the brain which gave birth to it refuses to acknowledge the sound of its cry! I struggled giving speeches in Toastmasters because I couldn’t refer to notes. I would memorize the speech, but once I spit it out, the content drained away as quickly as water down a 36-inch storm drain. But where I’m terrible at memorizing, I’m blessed with remembering.
It amazes Mary what I can remember–colors, smells, participants, the gist of conversations that took place almost fifty years ago. I can remember my parents feeding me while I sat in the high chair, playing the “open up, here comes the airplane” game. I can remember the weather the day I graduated from high school, or the sun’s brilliance when the neighbor kid blew pepper into my eyes when I was five. I can even remember the gray darkness of a mid-December afternoon contrasting with the overhead lights reflected in the floor-to-ceiling windows as I sat at my desk and told my fellow kindergarteners an outright lie about a drawing of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
It’s a matter of paying attention, of deliberately engaging all my senses, of concentrating, of being intentional. When Mary’s upset about something, she wants me to just listen. She wants me to keep my mouth shut, my ears open, and really pay attention to what she’s saying. All too often I look her in the eye, nod in agreement, smile–and think about starting dinner or finishing up my next blog post. I have to work at paying attention as hard as I have to work at writing, maybe more. “When people talk,” said Ernest Hemingway, “listen completely. Most people never listen.”
But to make memories, I not only need to pay attention, but I also need to live largely, maybe with hyperbole, but definitely with excitement, even when the experience du jour sucks. In other words, it’s my obligation as a writer to live immersed in the moment, to allow it to permeate me and perhaps overload me, to stimulate not only all of my senses but all of my biases and preconceived notions, to allow it to reform my existence and my experience in one way or another. To change.
One aspect of Thoreau’s wisdom is the truth that the more experiences we live through, the more connections we’ll be able to make, and the more “life” we can convey to the world. Nothing will force you to pay attention more closely than embracing the attitude that each and every incident, event, and experience is a potential story. Life slowly begins to make sense. Biases you’ve clung to for your entire life suddenly evaporate as the core meaning of life becomes clearer. Things don’t seem as difficult. Ideas click more quickly. The big picture whirs into sharp focus. And you sigh.
You sit down to write . . . and thereby live to the fullest . . . .
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes