On Sunday morning, I drove through town to have coffee with a friend. It was one of those exquisite fall days that sometimes arrive just before winter settles in—the aspens and cottonwoods are all bright yellow clouds of leaves contrasted against the cloudless blue sky and blue mountains—just dusted with snow—in the background. I had the same thought over and over, “It is such a beautiful fall day! I love the way that hillside looks! Look at the tree!” And my eyes were soaking in the sight of this line of trees and that ridge and the scatters of aspen groves I could see on the sides of the mountains. Over and over I thought, “It is so beautiful. This is the perfect day of this autumn. The PERFECT day.”
In the afternoon, I went to a friend’s house, and I finally pulled the car over to take a picture with my phone. It was the kind of amazing shot that makes you laugh, right, like this can’t even be real beautiful, and of course I posted it to Instagram, which posted to my Facebook page and to Twitter. Because that’s how life is right now.
Right now, right now, right now. I thumb through my Instagram feed, looking at the moments taken from the lives of friends and strangers. There’s a photo of the beautiful potatoes from last night’s dinner, and a cat smiling and two girls dancing in tutus. Here is a photo of a tree, moody against the horizon, and my cat’s socked feet and the hundredth photo of the other cat lying on his back with his paws over his eyes because I think it is so danged cute. He has bandit stripes and it looks like he’s playing peek-a-boo. My beloved asked, “How many pictures are you going to take of this cat doing that?”
I dunno. A million more, maybe.
Because we document things now, don’t we? Everything, everything, everything. Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and Tumblr, photos and moments of all varieties. It begins to seem like a crazy jumble, and maybe it is. Maybe all of those moments begin to seem like noise, and nullify each other.
But as writers, this is what we always do—measure moments, capture moments, present moments.
I remember walking down to my son’s apartment in the West Village last March, and I spied a girl smoking a cigarette in front of a shop. She was Nigerian tall and slim and impossibly young, her head wrapped in a beautiful scarf, her neck as elegant as a giraffe’s, and I asked if I could take her picture. She agreed, but hid her hand with the cigarette until I asked her to go ahead and smoke. I took the shot, then said, “Sorry if it seems weird.” And she said, “Oh, no, I do it all the time.”
That moment is now cemented more full in my mind than it would have been if I just passed by. Perhaps I would never have thought of her again. When I pulled over by the pond to shoot the picture of the aspens and mountains, it was the culmination of a day of thinking, “so beautiful, so beautiful, so beautiful,” and by taking the time to capture the photo, I will now remember. Not just that it was a beautiful autumn day, and I’ve lived through many of them, but what a splendiferous fall day it was—maybe the best of the entire season, and I was alive and awake and conscious of it.
Conscious of it.
I have a photo of my granddaughter in my office when she was only a few days old. A tiny infant girl, whose personality was not known to us yet. Now she is a robust, active 2 ½ year old and the baby is gone, gone, gone. That baby will never be again. Our time with her was swift and fleeting. As the time with her 2 year old self will be. As is my time as myself this year, this age, living this life, writing these books.
Cultivating awareness of the fleeting nature of time makes us better writers in two ways. The first is that the act of seeing—taking that shot, noticing when there is a shot to be taken, cultivates the awareness of the moment, the now. Which means you are seeing things more clearly, in more detail. It helps layer details into your imaginative stores so that when you need a leaf or a season or a day of dreariness or a great visual of potatoes, you have it, right there in your head.
Second, the awareness of the fleeting nature of everything can be the most powerful thing you bring to your writing. It should live in every scene, a whispering wonder that we are here at all, that we are seeing this face, this moment, a tragic understanding that no matter what, this moment will not linger either, a celebration that this world is. That we are in it, that it is horrible and magical and devastating and so heartbreakingly beautiful it is impossible to do anything but chant, “what a day! What a moment!”
Do you take time to notice moments, take them in? Are you a diarist, a photographer, something else? Do you think this flood of moments in images and tweets and posts are overwhelming–or beautiful? What influence does it have on your own writing?