When you set out to change your writing, sometimes you rewrite your life.
In your quest to be a better writer, do you ever find yourself haunted by scenes in books you’ve read? I’m thinking of a chapter entitled “Heaven” from the novel All the Light We Cannot See. Read it and you find yourself lying in wildflowers during wartime to contemplate heaven, experiencing the way a blind girl ‘knows’ bees.
To sweep your reader off the page and into the story like Anthony Doerr, you need a simple kind of magic that any of us could possess--if only. You need to be able to observe and capture the details that hold us to the story--and to life itself.
That’s where I get stuck. The time I spend in my head leads me astray. I worry and plan. I have goals, the personal, the professional, the immediate. Sometimes the sum of my existence is a race to school in the morning: noses wiped, teeth brushed, catastrophe and mud puddles averted.
We all have our ‘to-do’ lists to juggle, fears that quicken the pulse and goals that deserve our intensity. That’s just life, whirling around us. But if you don’t pay attention? You’ll find yourself down the rabbit hole--in a dark, tight place. Worry, preoccupation, and the fast life can contract your imagination and powers of observation down to something like a pinprick.
Believe me, I’ve tested it for you.
Oh, you ‘get things done.’ But you miss the butterflies drifting over the last flowers of fall or the way the wind picks up leaves and casts them about.
In the end, the question we must ask ourselves as creatives, is the same one we must ask ourselves as human beings: How do we take time in our busy lives to actually live them?
To search for answers, last year, I threw myself into creative expression. In the form of a very specific journaling technique. This is the story of my quest to save my writing from the tunnel vision of a life lived at high speed. Turns out, it’s also the story of how I’m rewriting my life.
Journaling to save the details of your existence.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them, before they close forever.”
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
To cure my writer’s predicament, the method I chose was simple. It had to be, I’m busy writing, teaching, running a book club and raising two bilingual children who wear capes while creating art installations in my living room.
Here’s the micro-version of the method I found that worked best for me: I chose one salient, happy or enjoyable moment every day and wrote it down. Every evening at first--while the moments were fresh in my memory. I tried to recall the details--anything that brought me out of my head ‘to my senses.’
In the beginning of my writing experiment, I often failed.
I wonder if you can imagine what that feels like? When you realize you don’t remember the smell of the bread you bought, the rambunctious warmth of your children's’ hugs. That you’d forgotten the way the light fell across your dashboard as you drove past frosty fields. That you can’t recall the details of your daily existence because you were paying attention to...something else.
You take back your life one experience at a time.
At some point in my journal experiment, an understanding landed on me with such light feet that it took me a while to notice it was there. I began to start each day with an idea: that I needed to hunt for one moment and snag it. I set out, the way my children pick up their butterfly nets on some days and head for the garden--intent.
Of course, when you leave each day with your net you’re way more likely to come back with a dragonfly, a cricket, some buzzing and ephemeral bit of life.
After about a month, I could see the effects of my journaling habit on my writing. It got a lot easier to sprinkle my blog posts and story drafts with words and situations that packed a sensory punch.
Another result started to emerge quite by surprise, I felt more inventive. Quite often, and in a way that still surprises me, the quick sessions of snagging a moment lead me to a topic to write about, a story, the meaning behind the moment. Or just a realization about life and what I might like to do next. Or instead.
But the changes in my writing paled compared to the changes I noticed in my life.
The most unexpected side effects of my little journal experiment had nothing to do with writing at all.
Why capturing the details of your life matters.
I’m convinced that the change I experienced in my life happened once I realized I needed to spend my days sneaking up on my moments with a butterfly net--and not just for the sake of my writing. Since then, I’ve started to be curious about why it all works.
How did a simple 10-minute scribbling session in my journal could add up over days, weeks, and months? How could savoring a series of ephemeral moments have such an impact on my life? Was it the whisper of a tiny wing beating the air? The combined weight of each swish of my net? ***
For now, I’d like to leave you with a very small idea to turn over in your hand: that a tiny act, the smallest search, the faintest understanding can change us more than we imagine. And yes, that includes 10 minutes of satisfying scratching with your pen.
***In the next three posts, we’ll dive into why this process works, the research, the mindfulness of art, the way we pay attention...
Ready to start carrying a butterfly net?
Thanks for sharing this adventure with me. If you’d like to test out this journaling technique I’m including a short and sweet “how to” below.
I created this particular writing practice for myself because my anxious nature and busy lifestyle were frustrating me on my quest to snag the details of my life.
I keep coming back to it because the process reminds me to focus on the beautiful, the ephemeral the delicious. I do it because, more often than not, those details that pull me in also steer me towards something meaningful. Or at the very least, they open a door for my search for meaning in all my moments.
If you’ve got any questions as you give it a try, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned so far. And if you’ve got further ideas on the topic, new areas for experimentation, your own cool spin on capturing moments through artistic expression--or further reading to recommend, please let me know in the comments.
How to Capture Your Moments:
Sit down once a day to snag the moments. You may find this easier in the evening when events are still fresh in your mind. Personally, as I’ve improved my concentration and recall I’ve even been able to do this in the morning. I pick that time because my kids are usually still asleep. The best time of day? The time that works for you.
Write about one simple moment. Something that caught your attention during the day--where your senses were awakened. For me topics have included a trip to the bakery in my adopted village in the South of France, getting stuck behind a herd of sheep, or simply stepping out barefoot on a damp Larchwood deck to toss my coffee grounds into a planter. It had rained in the night but the sky was clear. I’ve never seen so many stars even the little ones were out--clouds of them… Your moments can be mundane and monumental. Just take note.
Keep it positive--for now. For reasons I’ll go into in a future post, I suggest starting with positive or enjoyable moments. Look for something each day that you can savor. (Even the worst days have these, I promise). And maybe that’s the best part of this process--finding the tiny hint of beauty on days when you think there is none.
Write down the details. I never spend more than 10-15 minutes on this exercise, but I insist on seeing if I can recall something from all the senses. I dig until I find it. Don’t be afraid to pick up on emotions too--just start with the senses.
Expect struggles and progress. Last week I had a day where all my moments seemed to get hijacked. It happens. Just notice it and plan on ‘being there’ next time. (If you’re really stuck, and have nothing to write about one day--you can also choose a moment from the past that fits the bill. I bet you’ve got a few of those.)
Repeat. I’m in the business of changing the way I interact with the world so I can change my writing. We all know that won’t happen overnight. If you really want to change your writing, or use your writing to re-write your life, give this a try more days than not for at least a week.