I did a presentation in a prison recently. (Okay, it was a “Juvenile Detention Facility,” but trust me—it was a prison). I went with the multi-media version of my presentation—including cajon and sound system—because young men sometimes respond better to loud noise than to quiet words. And thankfully, they were into the whole drumming-as-history-lesson aspect. But the part of the presentation that seemed to resonate most of all was an unscripted comment I made about their current situation…
“How many of you like to write, or think you might want to write someday?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Or maybe write songs?” A few more hands. “Or write a stage play? Or poetry? Or develop a TV series? Or start a podcast? Or write a screenplay for a movie? Or…” By the end of it, most of the hands in the room were up.
“Then pay attention.” A few of them looked confused. “Not to me. To this.” I waved my arms, indicating the entire facility—the large common room we were all locked into, the smaller connecting rooms, the correction officers on duty, the yard outside… all of it. “This sucks for you right now. You don’t want to be here. No one does. I get that. But as long as you have to be here, pay attention. Not just to what’s happening around you, but to how you feel about it… how you respond to it… how it informs you, shapes you, changes you. Every day. Maybe make notes about it, or start a journal or write a story or whatever it takes to remember it… Because when the time comes and you go to create that music or book or film or blog, you’ll realize how unique this experience was, and what powerful source material it could be. Not that it’s necessarily a good experience, but it’s a foundational one. One that most of society doesn’t have. So pay attention…”
We sat there for a second, looking at each other. Probably with the same thought in our heads: where the hell did that come from? But I could tell from the nods that they got it, and we went on to another topic.
But the moment stuck with me.
Sometimes the most important events—the ones that help define us—aren’t the big wonderful watershed moments… the graduations, the weddings, the births, the promotions. Sometimes they’re the failures, or maybe the dragging-ourselves-off the-floor struggles after the failures. And sometimes they’re just the crap life throws at us, or the mud it drags us through. The stuff that—if it doesn’t kill us in the process—makes us stronger. Supposedly.
We had a minor-league experience of this sort recently, and while it was the polar opposite of fun during the event, looking back from where we are now—when you know everything turns out okay—there are clearly some valuable takeaways here. Not lessons, exactly. More like a behind-the-curtains peek at what goes on in our brains when we realize that events may be well beyond our control and the outcome may be very not-good. The experience was definitely worth paying attention to, and I’m confident it’ll return at some point—in greatly morphed form—adding veracity to a future work of fiction.
Someone close to me (another writer) had a more significant episode over the past several weeks, medical in nature. I was talking to him a few days ago (he has a long recovery period ahead of him, but he’s largely out of the woods regarding immediate life-or-death issues) and he said he’s documenting everything that happened to him during the apex of the situation. But rather than a nuts-and-bolts recounting of various medical events and tests and diagnosis, etc., he’s writing everything that was going on inside his mind as things unfolded. “It’s not technically accurate,” he said. “Not at all. Some of what was happening to me was nothing but a construct inside my head. But it’s my subjective truth, as it happened to me. That’s what I want to capture.” I have to give him major props for that attitude, and I have no doubt this will be useful to him in the future, on several fronts.
The things we should pay attention to aren’t always single, discrete events. They could be periods in our lives when we’re in a “paying our dues” phase. And—frustratingly enough—these don’t always have a clearly marked beginning or ending. Sometimes it seems like we fade into them, then gradually climb out. And while we’re in the middle of it, of course, we don’t usually know if we’re near the end or only just warming up. Even so, if you find yourself in one of these less-than-perfect periods, you could do well to try and capture the feelings you’re experiencing. As you’re experiencing them, if possible. Soon after, if not. “Write what you know,” as I interpret it, is more about emotional truth than trying to shoehorn your factual daily life into your novel. (In my view, one of the many reasons Harry Potter resonated like it did was that J.K. Rowling stayed in touch with the emotional truth of her previous lived reality… writing away in the back room of the Elephant House… dirt poor and not knowing if she would ever publish, let alone have the level of success that lay ahead of her. And this translated very well when writing a character for whom things were also very unclear and less-than-perfect at the beginning.)
I’m not saying “you need to be poor to write poor,” or any other version of that reductive statement. I’m suggesting that all of us face times when things aren’t going as we might wish, either acutely or chronically. And that staying in touch with the way those experiences feel—to you, on the inside, as you live them—can be very valuable later on, when you’re writing about characters going through situations which may be very different on the face of it, but which may have the same emotional truth underneath it all.
So when life gives you lemons, sure—follow the conventional wisdom. If that’s even possible. But also, take the time to study the lemon grove, seeing all the other lemons in all the other trees. And realize that the “life handing out lemons” paradigm may be unique in the micro, but it’s pretty universal in the macro.
In other words, pay attention. You’ll thank yourself later.
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