“The problem is, too many writers today are afraid to be still.”
So says Silas House, the author of four novels, several plays and a creative non-fiction book. Writing in the Opinionator column of The New York Times, House maintains that many of us writers talk about writing, attend conferences, write and cartoon on FB, rather than write.
How do we write as we lead our busy lives? We learn to be still in our heads or House says “to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened.” Or, as House says quoting Joyce Dyer “seeing like an animal.”
As a writer, when I am stuck in a line at Rite Aid, I challenge myself to come up with the color of the scarf on the lady in front of me, sky blue, the color of the ocean as a thunder storm comes on, the blue of Paul Newman’s eyes? Or is it periwinkle? Turquoise? I am still in my mind. And, serendipitously, I am not writhing with impatience as the line crawls along.
I remember waiting, more than once, for a cross-town bus on 67th and Lexington in New York City. All the other passengers were stepping forward, looking left for the bus, and then returning to the standing position – when is that bus going to arrive? Instead of copying this native practice, I would switch into my writer’s mind and decided to create an image/moment (as Jack Grapes would call it), in my mind. How would I describe The Armory in front of me? What is the light and what are the sounds of this moment. Smells? The costume on the others around me? And their characteristics? I do not write this down. I’m keeping still and engaging in an exercise that keeps me alive as a writer.
I invite all of you to do this. Transform washing the dishes into a writing exercise. How would your main character behave in this exact moment? While driving to the market, who do you see along the way? How are they dressed? What can you tell about these characters by the way they move?
Silas House reiterates all of this, and in a more specific way, in his piece. Check it out. House concludes, the age-old truth that we all know somewhere inside of us: “There is no way to learn how to do this except by simply doing it. We must use every moment we can to think about the piece of writing at hand, to see the world through the point of view of our characters, to learn everything we can that serves the writing….It must be the way we live our lives.”
Exercise: Listen to the rhythm and tone of people talking in elevators, at the table next to you in a café. At the dinner table. Overhear stories. Listen to accents and new words. Every time you hear a new word, look it up, put it in a sentence. And, if in a café, bring out the journal and start writing down what you hear. And, if you are working on a character, imagine him with you at your table. What would he say about that strange looking bum in the corner?
This exercise has as many possibilities as there are moments in our day.