Take Notes: It’s Your Life
If going to Paris is out of the question, let alone going into a quiet room all by yourself to write, and you’re thinking that you have nothing to write about anyway because you’re stuck at home, and that life is car pools and toddlers dropping trails of Cherrios around your house, and the dog chewing up your favorite shoes, and a kid who insists on dressing herself for preschool in the same bathing suit every single day, or the teenager who rolls his eyes a lot and says “whatever” every other minute – take notes. Or if you’re going to your job day after day and questioning the point of it all while fighting traffic and wanting to weep over the price of gas, just get it down on paper. Use what you have and what you feel.
In the last post I mentioned Anne Tyler’s new novel, Digging to America, and one of the joys of the book is her keen observation of the dailyness of family life - the details in child rearing, the way families blend and bump against each other, the way people celebrate their lives with food and rituals. Part of Tyler’s brilliance is the way she uses point of view in different chapters. One chapter through a parent’s eyes, another through a grandparent’s, and hardest of all to pull off – a chapter through a child’s eyes (without the slightest case of cutes or coyness.)
In this morning’s L.A. Times there’s a funny and poignant essay by Kerry Madden called “Surviving the Senior” – about living with a teenager in his last year of high school. Check out her opening paragraph – how it pulls you right into the essay: “I wonder if there is some kind of post-traumatic stress treatment center for parents who survive senior year.” And then the scene of her son reading Where the Wild Things Are to a group of blind children: “He read the story the way we used to when he was little, and he had the class of six year olds stomping their feet, clapping their hands, throwing their arms in the air. They all danced the wild rumpus with the senior.”
To Do: Take notes from a scene in your real life. A family dinner, a discussion with your kid, an argument with your partner or parent or co-worker, an experience in public, or any interaction you go through during the day. Write it all down, the good and the ugly. A scene with conflict will have the most juice. (Part of the value of this exercise is simply to be looking for material, not going through your daily life on automatic pilot.)
For essay writers: what are the issues in the scene you’ve taken notes on? Does the surface talk and action cover up deeper feelings? Is there a theme to what’s going on? What emotions were you feeling? This isn’t a test, it’s just a way to question your life with a writer’s eyes. Maybe there’s nothing special in your notes, but you’re getting into the habit of keeping track of your life, looking for material to shape into an essay.
For fiction writers: how could you use this scene in a short story or a novel? What did you want or need? What did the other person want? Try writing the scene from each person’s point of view. Let your imagination fill in the blanks.