Sometimes I decide, “I would rather not do real life today. I would rather write instead.”
And sometimes someone has the audacity to pull me away from my writing and pressure me into doing something “real” like going shopping. Lucky for me, even when the saboteur manages to persuade me into buying groceries instead of penning my next masterpiece, I have a super-secret, sneaky way to rebel.
Little does he know that just because I’m not at my computer, that doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Every snarky cashier I meet becomes a potential character model for a story. The lady who snatches the last carton of my favorite peach ice cream in a supermarket? Villain fodder! “Better enjoy that ice cream, missy. I have disparagingly described your facial contours, style of dress, and gestural habits on the notepad of my phone. However I have noted one good trait so you will be believable. I will see you in my novel!”
Other friends who would sabotage my writing surpass themselves in cunning. They know that the one venue I absolutely cannot resist is the beach.
However, there is a caveat here. In general it is best to keep writers away from bodies of water. They will never leave. Moreover, they may exhibit strange symptoms, such as a wistful, faraway look in the eyes.
Every time I see a body of water, my mind goes berserk exploring different ways to describe how water looks when light strikes it. “The lake glimmered softly in the morning sunlight.” No, no, no, too trite. “The water was still as glass.” Hmm. Trite but classic and definitely apt. Still, I could do better. “Cotton candy blue?” No. Too…fuzzy. Water is not a cat.” This will go on all day if I let it, unless whoever I am with shows me something else shiny to obsess over, like a ball of tin foil. There is nothing that enthralls a writer more than reflected light.
Such obsessing over seeming trifles is not an isolated incident, nor is it the product of a mental illness or a psychoactive drug. Still, no matter where I go, a part of me is somewhere else. No matter how engaged I appear to be with my surroundings, part of me is always thinking about what I will write about it when I make it back to the safe haven of my computer, the home where my mind really lives.
In a sense my trips away from home are all out-of-body experiences. Every visit to a restaurant, amusement park, birthday party, or even funeral becomes a field trip for writing where anything I hear, see, feel, or do can become potential source material for some unwritten story, essay, or poem.
I sometimes wonder if this is a healthy approach to life. This is not just art. It is practically a philosophy. But is it a good one? Does life need a purpose beyond itself? Do I do life a disservice by burdening it with something so heavy as a purpose? Maybe sometimes it is enough just to enjoy ice cream, stroke my cat, or drink coffee.
There is a strange paradox that comes with using life as a source for artistic material, and not prizing it as a precious gift in itself.
On one hand, I write to feel more intensely. I gather information in such a way that it makes emotional sense to me. In that way the act of observing as a writer makes me feel more fully alive. However, the mindset of using these emotions for art also detaches me from the very life I am trying to describe.
Whenever I venture out into the world, I am like a photographer who is constantly seeing scenery that captivates her as she hides behind the rectangular lens of her camera. Ooh, pretty. I think this palm tree looks extra beautiful when trapped inside the arbitrary prison of a rectangle! I wonder what this gorgeous tree would look like without an artificial window cutting off half its fronds. Oh, never mind. Snap!
As a writer I carry my rectangular lens with me in my head everywhere I go, constantly framing what I see in ways that interest me. Instead of experiencing life directly, I filter my experiences through words, memory, and imagination.
Like a photographer I may love my subject passionately whether it is a flower or a person, yet in a way I have detached myself from the objects I admire in that nothing I see is really an end in itself; everything that catches my eye is evaluated for its usefulness as creative material. I wonder, what would this look like in a story, a passage of a novel, or an essay?
Whether this approach to life is good or bad or something in between, there is no stopping me now, because I have become as dependent on my writing as my writing is on me.
My way of observing, as a means to an end, is as much a psychological defense mechanism as it is an artistic tool. Sometimes peppering what I see with imagination makes what is beautiful more beautiful.
Framing experiences for later creative use can also turn suffering into creative triumph. Even when I cry, there is always a part of me, the writer, standing outside of me with a notepad objectively recording everything, a kind of reassuring Vulcan figure who finds the phenomenon of lachrymose expression “fascinating” or at least very amusing. With an inquisitive arch of his eyebrow he asks, What does it feel like to cry? Tears notwithstanding, what happens to the throat muscles or the tiny muscles around the eyes? Is there a sense of impending doom, a subjective feeling that the world is ending even though crying has never ended the world before? The next time I write, I think, I will remember this. And immediately I feel better.
Full detachment from the world is not ideal. Taken to the extreme it would be insanity. Artistic detachment seems safer, but maybe even it comes with a price. Maybe I do miss out on some of the uninhibited wonder I had as a child when I saw the ocean for the first time, without the words to express how it looked or how I felt, but with nothing more than a pure, dazzling sense of wonder.
Maybe sometimes it is more exciting to just look without analyzing, to feel without trying to put anything into words. Maybe the ineffable wonder of experiencing something beautiful without any attempt to “capture” it is a sacrifice you make when you become a writer. I do not know which is better for most people.
I only know that I made my choice long ago. I continue to make it again and again everyday, and for as long as I live, I will never stop trying to capture, in words, the way light looks when it glances off water or observing strangers in grocery stores when I should be shopping for cucumbers. Writing is not just an occupation or even a way of life. It is who I am.
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