For me, writing has always been a steamy love affair. Whenever I can, I snatch a few moments to scribble: when I have five minutes to kill before heading to work, when I’m waiting on my boyfriend to finish getting ready for dinner. Writing is something I lust after. Yet at times writing is a temperamental lover. I struggle, for example, whenever I sit to write about myself. I wish I could be more like Anais Nin, the definitive diarist of our era: so awake to the minutiae of experience. Did she ever struggle with finding something to say? Reading her private diaries, I feel like every page contains a bit of beauty or revelation: if she’s not pondering some deep philosophical problem, she’s working out the plot of her next novel or evocatively describing the world around her. Each sentence, each paragraph traces the topography of her inner life. Whereas her diary contains mountains and hillsides and rivers, mine seems as arid as a desert. Where are my profound insights into being? my faithful recreations of day-to-day existence?
Unlike Anais Nin or Joan Didion who— reflecting on her college years— could recall the “exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car” and the way the “tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light,” I find it difficult to remember and represent the realities of physical, sensory experience. My attention is rarely on what I can “see and taste and touch,” but rather preoccupied with the “world of ideas.” How often am I asleep to the color of the sky, the expression on another’s face, the tone of their voice, the quality of the air? So much hurtles past my awareness without my having noticed.
But as writers, if we’re sedated to the world, how can we ever hope to write about it? If we ponder the birthplace of any story, of any idea, we’ll find they all originated in the author’s own experience. James Joyce got the basic plot for his unrivaled literary achievement Ulysses from a rather ordinary night drunk around Dublin. The Beatles’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun” came from a catchy gun advertisement. Every work of art begins with a thought, an observation; every solid, concrete finished product with a formless, indistinct idea. And ideas are all around us: in the aisles of the supermarket, in line at the bank, at the movie theater. Like radio waves, potential ideas float through the air longing for articulation. The artist is an antenna, a vehicle for their expression. But we can only grasp these elusive notions from the ether if we’re tuned into the right frequency, if we’re actually here.
To be here is to awaken to the mind-boggling beauty of immediate experience instead of surrender to the deadening and desensitizing forces of habit. “Habit,” Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Anthony Doerr wrote, “is useful, even essential—X is the route to work, Y is the heft and feel of a nickel between your fingers. Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs. We need habit to get through a day, to get to work, to feed our children. But habit is dangerous, too. The act of seeing can quickly become unconscious and automatic…if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack.”
As the ever eloquent Susan Sontag once noted, being a good writer depends on being a good observer. When we become stupefied by the repetitiveness of routine, our vision— and writing— loses some of its sharpness. The moon is no longer “eerie” or “somber” or “lusterless” but merely another “big yellow” moon. The sky is not a peaceful tone of “cerulean” or a surreal shade of “indigo” but only “blue.” We can only accurately observe the world and render it in words when we’re utterly immersed in the here and now. It’s when we’re engrossed in the present moment that we can see clearly and find the precise words with which to express ourselves. Without presence, our senses dull until life resembles an out-of-focus photograph, blurry and obscured.
It’s a sad truth that most of us are tourists— not permanent residents— of “here”: we visit from time to time but very rarely make our home there. Instead, we sojourn to the present as if on holiday, infrequently, once, maybe twice a year. Not fully awake to our own experience, we become benumbed to what poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman called the “gorgeous fever of consciousness” and cease being able to see— really see— the glory that is here: the breathtaking view from a mountain top, a blade of grass, the smell of our lover’s hair. To be a writer is to take notice. But if we neglect to take heed, we lose our power of discernment— a faculty indispensable to the artist. Suddenly we can’t distinguish the hazel color of our boyfriend’s eyes from the chestnut brown of a chair. Rather than carefully scrutinize our own lives— the scenes we’re attempting to recreate, the objects we’re trying to render— rather than search meticulously for just the right word, we resort to the same time-worn cliches, hand-me-down nouns, and lethargic verbs. The result? Our perception— and writing— loses its vigor.
“Language is the principal metaphor,” writer of restrained elegance Jhumpa Lahiri once observed. What I think she meant by that is language corresponds to life, its strange symbols representations for the exterior. As writers, our ability with language is commensurate with our ability to observe: to write well we have to live well. If we fail to inhabit “here”— the present— in all its astounding splendor, we’ll merely gloss over the surfaces of things— never penetrate their interiors.