Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Writer in the World

Anyone who writes knows a life of writing means long hours staring at a page or a computer screen, watching words take shape across the mass of white. But whenever I've been writing hard for several days, I'm reminded of a story I came across years ago. I wish I could remember the author because it is a parable worth remembering and giving credit for.

Two writers sat down to describe a county fair (or wedding or business meeting or whatever you want). One writer provided excellent detail and grounding in the event, but the other writer made you feel you were there. You forgot you were reading. The teacher who passed along this tale meant to impart one lesson. As much as we may love writing, we also have to live. The stories we discover as we explore and work through an idea come out of lived experience. The first writer made the story feel like a research project. But the second writer had been to the wedding and had a great time, and she conveyed that in her story.

As much as I love writing, I also love getting out in the world. On a recent visit to Salem and the Peabody Essex Museum, I passed an exhibit of sticks, yes, sticks. Let's face it, modern art is peculiar. But it is also fun.

"What the Birds Know," or Stickworks by Patrick Dougherty, is a cluster of half a dozen human sized
stick nests. You can walk into each of them and peer out through a window. They're illuminated so you can explore them at night or at least see them, and two or three people can crowd into each one. They sit behind the fence, on the lawn of a federalist house in downtown Salem, opposite the Hawthorne Hotel. They are right where we might think they don't belong.

The sculpture of huge nests is intentional art, and the brochure reports that it will be gone in a year, the result of natural forces and time. But what about the man who collects hubcaps and one day decides to nail them to the fence so he can admire his collection? He has scattered across his back yard, to the consternation of his neighbors, various parts of old cars and trucks and farm equipment. "They're so handy," he tells anyone who complains. "They're right there when I need them." And indeed the array of rusting artifacts has a certain beauty to it.

And then there's the man whose house sits on a hill looking down on the narrow street. He has positioned white buckets along the gravel path, to store extra gravel in case of icy weather. Clutter or art?

Whenever I see such things, I wonder about who these people are and how much I enjoy their way of living in the world. But I also think of the teacher/writer who reminded his/her students to get out in the world. It's full of interesting people doing interesting things with their lives and back yards.


  1. You should see my sewing room. I prefer to think of it as a work of art.

  2. Your sewing room is a reflection of your other self. I never had a sewing room, but I had a corner where I kept my sewing mating and a stack of boxes next to it. I tried hard to keep it neat, but when I was working, that was impossible.

  3. Yes, often life interferes with writing. However, some of those real adventures somehow end up in my fiction when I least expect it.

  4. I had a lot of experience, a lot of life, between periods of writing (making a living, I guess), and those experiences are part of the world I write about. It all comes together.