Nights are warm enough now for me to sleep with my bedside window open. Which I love. I fall asleep to the shushing of wind through leaves and the call of a distant train. I wake to a symphony of birdsong. These details of life fill the well of my spirit and often find their way into my writing.
Our world is designed to provide us with details in abundance. Kind of a good news/bad news thing for writers. Good, because details ground our stories in reality and make them believable. Bad because sometimes the abundance of detail around us keeps us from really noticing. Info-bits jump up and down, wave their arms, and sing, “Look at me! I’m the important detail!” We’re in danger of leapfrogging from one voice to another, from blinking cursor to flashy link, ever on the move, never settling in to actually notice.
My neighborhood is beautiful and quiet and in full bloom now. On one of the first warm sunny days of the season, I glanced up from my writing to see a couple of women walking down the street. My first thought was, “Excellent day for a walk. I’m so glad they’re taking advantage of it and enjoying the beauty.” Then I realized that both of them were texting as they walked, not seeing the newly leafed tulip poplar or the scatter of violets across the lawn. Then my neighbor, a young mother, returned home from an errand with her preschooler. As she climbed the stairs with him in tow, she wasn’t there. She was texting. Close encounters of the electronic kind.
So I wondered: these days do we notice only what we’re told to notice? Only what we’ve signed up to notice? Only what the algorithms think we want to notice – if you liked this, you might like that? No new flavors? Are we entrenching? Avoiding life from a different point of view? That might work for a lot of people but not for writers. “…writers are forever looking for the surprising revelation – not for reinforcement of collective wisdom,” says Carol Bly.
A writer needs to have a deep stock of “elements essential to the emotional moment.” (David Gerrold) Those elements are fashioned from a variety of details stored within us, treasures gathered when we notice our world: woodpecker taps that sound like ellipses punctuating the air; the swollen, overly sweet smell of rotting oranges; dogwood blossoms the color of old lace, a Miss Haversham white. And the people . . . “Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is . . . ,” says Anne Lamott. We only have to be open to these details. The muse polishes these gems and hands them back to us as we write.
But first we must notice – really notice – the world around us. Lamott says, “Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that . . .’ I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world – present and in awe.” But it’s not just for the sake of writing that we need to cultivate the art of noticing. It’s the secret, according to William Morris: “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”
So I wish for you that secret.
As always, Happy Reading! Happy Writing!
Text and photo © 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.