Looking at the world with specificity, compassion and purpose will improve your writing.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
My friend’s toddler has it the “what” stage. “What’s that momma?” she asks, pointing at, in no particular order, sea shells, abandoned hubcaps, hot chocolate…another toddler’s toy. The questions, my friend admits, have pushed her to look differently at the world – even the most mundane items take on a mysterious significance.
“Whoa,” her daughter said last week when she happened upon her first barber pole, “momma, what’s that?!”
And when you stop to think about it, barber poles are pretty amazing.
“Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!’ And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, ‘Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at that scary dark could!’”
“I think this is how we are supposed to be in the word,” admits Lamott, “present and in awe.”
Last week I took my friends kids, ages 8 and 10, to the Grand Canyon. It was a weekend of first for the two young boys – first vacation away from mom and dad, first time wading in the banks of the Colorado River, first glimpse of a smoky casino full of gamblers (sorry mom and dad, it was the only way to get to the hotel pool!). And though I’d seen all the sights before, the cliché holds true – seeing it through their eyes made it all seem fresh and new.
A “fancy” restaurant – where the kids sipped Shirley Temples and marveled over the multiple sets of silverware – seemed momentarily vast and daunting. The Colorado River was at once colder, swifter and scarier than it had ever seemed before (taking responsibility for someone else’s kids makes it seem as if the world’s dangers have suddenly been doused with highlighter-yellow). And of course, the Grand Canyon took on an extra significance – all that history, that slow, methodical, patient erosion endlessly eating away at the cliffs.
By watching those kids live in the moment, and experience everything with that certain immediacy specific to childhood, I observed the whole landscape with heightened concentration and awareness.
Anne Lamott calls this, “the ecstasy of paying attention,” and she connects it to the idea that in order to bring your characters to life, you have to write life-like characters in a life-like setting. And in order to do that, you need to write from compassion – from an open heart, and from an intense and concerted awareness.
“Writing involves seeing people suffer, and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein,” Lamott explains. “But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them all wrong.”
The trick, then, is to apply a sympathetic gaze – what makes that person like you? How can you strip away all the layers and all the symbolic influence of their clothes, their cars, and their accent and find the commonality?
By first applying that compassionate gaze inward. As Lamott warns, this isn’t really easy for most of us. It takes practice; it takes training…it takes treating our psyche like a puppy in the process of potty training. Less yelling, and lots of return trips to the newspaper.
“I keep trying to gently bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen,” writes Lamott. “Maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence. Because if I don’t learn to do this, I think I’ll keep getting things wrong.”
“If you start to look around,” advises Lamott, “you’ll start to see.”
Yesterday I talked about the importance of taking time off, resting your creative ambitions and indulging in ecstasies large and small. When you treat yourself, practice paying attention. Really savor that chocolate truffle. Really feel the texture of that new scarf. Revel in the smell of your new shampoo. Exalt in the soft breeze that envelopes you on an afternoon walk. Stop and smell the roses. No…I mean literally stop and smell the roses!
When was the last time you paused over a blooming flower, or really listened to the chuckle of trickling stream?
By looking closely at the world – really seeing what surround you and what you absorb and discard – you can open yourself up to nuance and inspiration. And the next think you know, you’re writing will rise to the challenge and you’ll fill page after page with evocative sentences and poetic license.
And writing will feel that much more “doable.”
“When what we see catches us off guard, and when we write it as realistically and as openly as possible, it offers hope,” declares Lamott. “You look around and you say, Wow, there’s that same mockingbird; there’s that woman in the red hat again, up to her neck, too, yet every day she puts on that crazy red hat and walks to town.”
Our arrival at the Grand Canyon was full of busy excitement – searching for parking, finding a bathroom, making sure everyone’s cameras and gadgets were loaded and accessible – but the gathering storm clouds seemed to encourage reflection. I kept telling the kids there were lucky the day was overcast, the clouds in the distance help give a sense of perspective and depth – on bright sunny days, the canyon can take on a flat appearance, but the shadows created by the cloudy sky gave the entire landscape a sense of dimension and purpose.
We flirted with the edge and we wondered about the brave souls who dare to ride mules down to steep, switchbacks to the canyon floor. We took lots of photos, and we wondered what it would feel like to fall of the ledge. The kids collected rocks and climbed trees while the temperamental Arizona sky cycled back and forth between sprinkles and sun. And we wrapped it all up with an early dinner at the sumptuous, “fancy” El Tovar dining room.
And though I’d visited the canyon before, and I’m wearily familiar with the Arizona desert, traveling with those kids made all the difference.
“Wow!” they said when they’d caught their first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, “Is that where we get to go Auntie Liz!”
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- Up is mandatory – what my Grand Canyon hike taught me about writing (audreykalman.wordpress.com)
- The Art of Dialogue (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
- Ah Ha: The Grand Canyon (magicbusstop.wordpress.com)
- New York Times Bestseller Anne Lamott and Son Sam Record New Novel at Live Oak Studio in Berkeley (prweb.com)