One of the great struggles of all writing is to create fresh, vibrant images and metaphors, to avoid the sin of telling and show the reader whatever it is we want them to see. I struggle with it as much as anyone, especially because I’ve been writing novels for a couple of decades now, and I only have my own eyes and ears out there in the world.
Recently, I’ve fallen in love with an app for my smart phone, 1 Second Everyday. The idea is simple—to record a one second video per day. It seems impossible that one second could show anything at all, but you’d be surprised. This is a one second video I recorded this morning.
You know what’s going on, right? I’m picking ripe English peas from my garden. On the surface, that’s a very simple act, but there’s a lot of detail and mood packed into that single second. The vines themselves, vigorous and fecund, the cool, even light of morning in the greenhouse, the pod itself snapping off in my fingers. The fingers belong to a woman who knows to plant peas in a shady place, who knows when to harvest them.[pullquote] Ordinary life is where all the miracles are. [/pullquote]
The app has made me think a lot about detail, about how we tell stories, how we choose from the thousands of seconds available in a single day to capture something. I don’t give a lot of thought to what videos to shoot—I just let my wandering attention settle on this thing or that and shoot it. I end up then capturing the things I care about—my cat trying to get on the roof from the top of the patio umbrella; my dog and I walking the parkways; his orange tail swishing; sage leaves sizzling in a pan to garnish a dish of ricotta and peas. Maybe yours would be a child or a training run or the street in front of your apartment.
I desperately wanted to take a one second video of a man who came into the salon the other day. I was waiting for my stylist, and an old hippie looking dude settled in a colorist’s chair. He was well into his sixties, with long white hair and a long white beard. He wore a long sleeved t-shirt and jeans with the cuffs rolled up and plain red Keds. He was there to get his hair bleached, I think. He looked as if he didn’t care about his appearance, but instead, he cares a lot. I wrote that paragraph to myself, just to capture him because I couldn’t take the video.
Which circles around to the practice I’ve engaged in for a long time, “In the moment….” I’ve used it in workshops and lectures to help writers connect to the present, to listen and observe and record, both on the page and more importantly, in the brain, what is actually happening around them. I use it as a tool myself, while traveling to ground myself in the actual thing in front of me not my irritation at the long lines or the heat. The sound of Hindi in the line at the airport. The blue and gold sari of the old woman speaking. The weariness of her husband with his hunched shoulders and heavy black glasses, looking away from her.
What is happening right now gives us everything we need.
One moment of detail, one second of true observation, can give us a wealth of information about a character, a setting, a charged situation between characters. In your writing, if you focus on a single second, you will naturally avoid cliché, and bring the real life freshness of ordinary life to the work. Ordinary life is where all the miracles are, all the freshness you could ever need to infuse your writing with powerful, original details.
Try it right now. Set a timer for one minute and write, “In the moment…..”
Mine is this: in the moment, I’m writing my column for Writer Unboxed. A cool breeze is blowing in through my window. An airplane from the Air Force Academy is circling on training flights. Finches are singing in the pine tree. It’s hard to stay in the moment because I have a lot to do today in preparation for a trip, but I need to get my work done before I pack.
Now. In this paragraph, I wrote something I’ve never written before, about the training flights. I live very close to the Air Force Academy and this particular sound is one I take for granted, but I never wrote it down. Will I use it? I don’t know. But it’s there if I need it.
1 Second Everyday has given me a greater awareness of the seconds of life. By standing in each moment, I notice all of them. I stand more often right where I am, aware that it is unbearably fleeting, that the seeds will sprout and grow and produce and wither, that the little girl who was a baby the other day will be a woman tomorrow. It gives me a sense of my own fleeting time on the planet, which lends sweetness to every action, every moment, every book read and written.
And that brings a very special power to the work, too.
What practices do you have to keep filling the well with creative details? Do you take time to build observation into daily life, or do you make time for artist’s dates? What detail can you share about your ordinary, miraculous life with us here?
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