One of my former professors suggested that writing should be like taking a mirror with you as you walk down the road. That your words should reflect what you see. You should get out of the way and let the words do their job.
For a long time, this advice was a good guide for me. It was, after all, a short story class made up of young college students. We hadn’t lived a lot of life yet. Imagining oneself carrying a mirror down the road helped ensure that we weren’t just figuratively walking – but looking. He wanted to make sure that we didn’t just write “The man had a tattoo.” He wanted us to write “The man had a Superman tattoo.”
But now that I’ve put 20 odd years between that time and now, I’ve taken his advice and added to it. When I read something that really resonates, it’s usually because all five senses are at play on the page.
Writer E. L. Doctorow states it this way:
"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."
It’s not just taking that mirror down the road and writing what it what it reflects. That is reporting. The trick is capturing the feeling of rain, too.
This is why taking long walks outside informs my writing. It’s not only the much needed exercise of the body, but the experience with nature. How do things smell? How do things sound? How can there be so many different shades of green? And butterflies? Don't get me started. I photographed this one (pictured above) on one of my daughter's recent field trips.
But it's not always the sensations of the outdoors that inspires. It's the people we share this world with.
Here’s a confession: I am something of a Gladys Kravitz when it comes to looking at people’s houses. Unlike Gladys, I do not go looking in people's windows. (If you are of an age where you don't know Gladys Kravitz, go here. I realize I'm dating myself.)
Where and how people live sparks so many character ideas. When I walk, I get all kinds of ideas about who might live in the house with the black shutters. Do they realize one of them is cracked? Why so many seasonal lawn ornaments over there? Do they put these out there for grandkids? And why, for the love of nature, would you display a potted plant on top of a dead tree stump in the middle of your front yard? Did a mad housewife put it up there because her hubby refuses to take the stump out and this is her rebellion? (This stump caused me so much curiosity that I did, in fact, have to write a story about the people who lived there. Made up, of course.)
And then, in my dad's neighborhood, there is this vehicle. (Yes, I have my camera with me most of the time. You just never know.) Wouldn't I like to know these neighbors? My inner Gladys Kravitz sort of explodes with questions about who would buy The Mystery Machine and did they ever pick someone up for a date in this van? I mean, Zoinks!
Maybe these aren't nature walks in the truest sense, but they never cease to inspire thoughts of human nature.
I’m still learning how to write the difference between rain and the sensation of being rained upon. I suppose the only true way to do this is to keep taking walks.
Even in the rain.
Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology, a novel about nature and nurture.
Visit her blog www.scobberlotch.blogspot.com