Writing is really a way of thinking, not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet. Toni Morrison
A lot of people want to write a book — normally, it’s a book about their life and they plan to start it in the future when they retire. Nice goal, so long as it stays in the future, it will always be a warm feeling to cosy up to in the mind.
Writing anything worth reading requires skill.
The skill I’m thinking about is the ability to write with clarity, to say exactly what you mean.
That means the ability to think and formulate thoughts into articulated words and paragraphs.
When we hit 65 years old, and want to retire, we better be sure that we spent a lot of our lives working out in our mental gym, just to be sure we’re fit enough to write our memoirs.
These days, there seems to be a lot of people who complain of a lack of concentration.
And because of this, they find writing an email that is more than a paragraph long, a text that requires proper wording, or a birthday card to be a stressful task.
The text and the email is about focusing on an already known subject and then compiling it into a understandable sentences. A little style wouldn’t go a miss, either.
The birthday card is hard; it calls for intelligible words to formed into sentences, and a little creativity to come up with something special and personal. That’s tough for a person who can’t concentrate.
A birthday card is perfect training for originality in writing. How often have you wanted to say something original in a birthday wish, and ended up simply writing the cliché, “Happy birthday, have a great day!!”?
The mind will always go to the comfort zones of dribbling down its bib when allowed to wander through word salads.
So those people, who can’t write emails and birthday cards, will always have a tough time of it when they decide they want to write their memoirs when they retire at 65.
The inability to stay focused on one idea for more than a few seconds, is a symptom of a mind that is no longer under the control of the user.
Writers need to build laser focus to keep the balance of sentences, paragraphs, chapters and subjects in order.
We look for the cause and blame social media and its frivolous offerings, the passing ideas that don’t float, but skim past our eyes as we scroll through reams of posts, and memes, and photos of funny looking cats up banana trees.
This way of looking at objects is training a brain to become saturated with so much information, that it can’t make sense of a single idea anymore.
A brain overwhelmed with images, ideas, short snappy sentences that mean little can cause the mind to drift.
When what we look at is no longer in context of a meaningful situation, our mind will soon begin to do what monkeys do, swing from branch to branch as if it’s going someplace important, but really, it’s going to end up back where it started — at the banana tree.
I’ve always believed, through experience, that practicing the arts, like writing, painting, music, and so on, is an excellent form of building brain muscles that are essential to concentration.
You can’t write about things observed unless you had the ability to observe with accuracy.
To be able to understand why a person does something by watching them interact with other people, to observe a person sadly walking through a crowded street of party goers, to notice this person, to ask yourself powerful questions about what you are seeing, is the challenge that the mind of a writer is presented with.
Writing is a noble pursuit, that requires a powerful mind.
I don’t claim to have the ability of a super hero with my mind, but I admire and aspire to the wonderful prose and acute observations of such writers who can write what they saw.
Alice Munro , John Cheever, Raymond Carver are writers who’s observations of everyday life leave the reader gasping and flabbergasted by how simple it all seems. But on leaving the story behind, you just can’t stop thinking about these people, the little things they said and did during the story.
Raymond Carver wrote a short story called, “Neighbors”. It’s about a couple living in a flat, they agree to look after their neighbor’s cat while the neighbors go on holiday. They decide to attend to the cat by taking turns in going to the flat alone each evening.
It’s when each one of the couple are alone in the flat on consecutive evenings, except for the cat, that they realise they can relax and snoop about, do things they wouldn’t normally do when their partner was present.
The story is short, six pages long, but it is such a punch on the reader’s mind, that if you’ve read it, you’ll just have to admit to yourself that that’s exactly how human beings are, they do stuff like these two characters in the story.
I’m not going to spoil it for you, so I’m not telling you a jot about what really happens. But that’s the rub, if I were to try and tell you what happened in the story, you’d think it was a boring story.
The reason for this is that I’m not Raymond Carver, I can’t tell it like he told it. And his telling of this small tale of everyday people, in a mundane situation that we all know, came from somewhere deep, it meant something important to him. He was focused on the small intriguing actions of humans who suddenly act out of character.
I would be more intrigued by the sad looking woman walking among a crowd of happy people. Maybe it’s a festival where you’d expect everybody to be happy and frivolous. But when I see something out of context in a situation, my mind zeroes in, locks and loads, and what I see is the most important event in the world.
I will to stop doing what I was doing, and simply watch and gather information. That’s how important it is. It could end up being a short story, if not, then I have a feeling that I will learn something new.
When this happens, I notice how my mind becomes fully concentrated.
The concentration that I experience as an observer, a writer, is something that I worked at over the years. It didn’t just happen.
When I was younger, I practiced meditative concentration, which is in fact the stage of meditation after you’ve trained your mind to be mindful of objects and feelings. It’s like a step-up in the process and is a powerful practice that can be exercised by anybody who has the daily discipline to do it.
As I began to understand what concentration really is, I could apply it to daily life — like in the practice of writing. I then was able to see that writing and other arts were the perfect ground for practicing concentration. So, I experimented with walking meditations/concentration, and various other self invented exercises that would help me increase my abilities to focus with a spatial concentration on any object. Like drinking a glass of water — and realizing that I was actually doing just that, in that moment, drinking water, only.
Writing requires that we master quite a lot of ideas and apply them to a sentence, then the same again to a paragraph. A scene structure, not to lose sight of the characters and their quirks of personality, locations, milieu, objectives during dialogues, narrative that doesn’t go off course, and the list goes on.
By taking our mind seriously enough to look after it, to nurture it with other people’s good writing and ideas, to learn to be in the present and appreciate the simplicity of everyday life without expecting it to be more glamorous, we can learn to focus fully on the moment. And become better at writing and saying exactly what we mean.
To be a good writer, even one who writes a book at 65 years old about themselves, you need to be able to focus on the moment, not the future. It’s the acutely observed moments in any life that make a scene powerful — and the ability of a writer to get that observation into words, is the ability to keep the mind from wandering off into dreams about yesterday or tomorrow.