Oct 18

Even When You’re Not Writing

There’s a magazine cartoon from either “The Writer” or “The Writer’s Digest” from years ago I remember. It showed a writer standing at a double window looking out on a fall day in his tweed jacket and a pipe in his mouth, talking to his wife dressed in an apron and holding a feather duster in one hand. The home office had full bookcase lined walls with an empty electric typewriter in the middle of a large messy desk. The writer was saying to his wife, “Just because I’m not writing, it doesn’t mean I’m not writing.”

We always have old ideas, storylines, and concepts percolating somewhere on a back burner. Sometimes it might be an almost forgotten character or incident which only needs the right stimulus to ignite into a glowing, roaring inspiration. Even when I’m supposed to be going to sleep, my wife will sometimes elbow me in bed and say, “Stop writing for today. I can hear the gears turning.” My wife is a poet, painter, jewelry maker and children’s story author. She understands how it works.

But it’s a concept many non-writers have trouble accepting — except, perhaps, for poets who are always seeing the world through unique eyes. Any moment for the poet can become like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” But for the mystery, scifi, or romantic writer?   The same is true.

There are two requirements for the writer to be writing when he isn’t writing.

First there’s the awareness that you have your passive radar, sonar and both audio and video recorders always on. Something someone says to you or around you — even something you see or hear from a wall mounted TV in a bar or restaurant — could provide the missing puzzle piece you’ve needed for a long time or even for the scene you’re working on at the moment.   You have to develop this wakefulness at a subconscious level and make sure it’s on and operating.

It reminds me of the ol’ joke about the preacher caught in a flood when the local river topped its banks. The police came through telling everyone to evacuate. . But the preacher said, “No, God will save me!” As the water began to rise and covered the streets, the local fire department was able to reach his front porch in a rubber boat and offered to take him to safety. Again the preacher refused saying, “No. God will save me!” When the water swept his house into the river, the preacher had to climb up to his roof. A Coast Guard rescue helicopter dropped a sling with a Coastie rescuer but again the preacher shook his head. “No. God will save me!” The house finally broke apart and the preacher drowned. When he got to heaven he met God and said he just didn’t understand. “I thought you were going to save me,” he pleaded. God replied, “I sent the police, the fire department and the Coast Guard.”

With writers, we have to be willing to help ourselves — to be willing to pick up on available stimuli and to be open to see things for more than just what’s on the surface.

Singer/songwriter Don Henley of the rock group, The Eagles, said a friend of his was always coming up with phrases or sayings which ended up part of songs Henley wrote. For example, they were in a bar one night which catered to working rockers and trophy wives looking for an illicit one-night stand. Henley’s friend was looking at the women at the bar and said, “Look at those lying eyes.” Lying Eyes became one of The Eagles biggest hits.

The second requirement is a way to write down or record the flashes of insight. I always carry 3 by 5 cards with me and have them beside my bed, beside my easy chair and on my desk. But Evernote or Penultimate, Pocket, and an array of other note taking programs available for your phone or pad make it so easy to make yourself a reminder. And don’t forget the onboard camera. Sometimes the quickest way to get something down is to snap a picture. The important thing is not to forget that flash you got somewhere, somehow.

As a writer, even when you’re not writing, you’re still writing.

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