I write for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that something in my past or in my imagination or in the world around me requires my attention.
More and more, I’m convinced that the ability to pay attention is the most important skill a writer can have. “Try to be one of those,” Henry James said, “upon whom nothing is lost.” We have to pay attention so we can see the nuances and contradictions that exist in any given person, or situation, or detail, or image. I assume you’ve all seen those optical illusions that present what appear to be one image, such as a vase, that turns into two images, say two faces in profile, the longer we look. So what is that image? A vase? Two faces in profile? It’s both, of course, and that’s an example of what I’m talking about. The more we pay attention, the more closely we look, the better able we are to see what lies beneath the surface of the first thing we notice.
We know how this works with ourselves. We know the person we present to the world isn’t the whole story. We know we can be decent, happy, charitable, for instance, while at the same time being capable of missteps and flashes of anger and ego and vanity. We see these contradictions in the people we know best. The more closely we look at people—the more intimately we know them—the more likely we are to know what makes them lovable and what makes them hard to love. Charles Baxter, when talking about the art of characterization in fiction writing, points out that characters are memorable when they surprise us by showing the aspects of themselves that they’ve kept submerged and possibly haven’t even been aware of possessing. “Sometimes street gangs act like families,” Baxter says, “and sometimes families act like street gangs.” When a writer puts characters under pressure, those characters will reveal more about themselves.
I remember a habit my mother had. She was a kind woman of faith and compassion and patience. Sometimes in the evenings, she’d sit, watching television or talking with my father, and she’d seem the picture of serenity. At some point, though, she’d begin, absentmindedly, to tap her fingers on the arm of her chair—thumb to forefinger and on to pinky finger over and over. Such slight movements. Such gentle taps. I could have easily missed them if I hadn’t been watching closely. As a teenager, I gave scant thought to this finger tapping. I took note of it and then went on through the self-absorbed days that make up the life of a teenager.
One night, when I was an adult, an action grew from the taps of those fingers that made clear what they’d been trying to express all along. It was the last night my mother spent in her own home. The next day, she’d take up residence at a nursing home. Her increasing confusion, which eventually would become full blown dementia, made it impossible for her to live alone. The letter carrier had mistakenly delivered a package that afternoon, one meant for a house down the street. Even though night had fallen, and it was raining, my mother was insistent that she carry the package down to its rightful owners. She even put on her coat and her rain hat. Finally, I was able to convince her that I’d deliver the package in the morning. She sat down in her chair. Her fingers began their tapping. Finally, she said in a fierce voice that was so uncommon for her, “All right, but if that box doesn’t get to where it’s supposed to go, I won’t be the one to blame.”
Even then, I understood that those taps of my mother’s fingers had all along been signs of something tightly wound beneath her placid exterior. I’m reminded of these lines from the Miller Williams poem, “Compassion”: “You do not know what wars are going on/ down there where the spirit meets the bone.” All along, the barely detectable tapping had risen up from whatever wars my mother was fighting in the most private chambers of her heart and soul.
On this night, the pressures of moving from her home, added to the awareness she must have had that she was gradually slipping away from the person she’d been, made it impossible for her to keep her wars submerged. The wrongly-delivered package was the detail that brought my mother’s anxiety and anger to the surface.
Those fingers tapping. My own dread over facing the next day. My mother’s insistence on doing the right thing. Her fierce voice, tinged, I realize now, with desperation. Everything brought up in me a great empathy for her on this last night before the beginning of the end.
My advice for those of you who write, or who want to write, is, I believe, equally good advice for those of us who strive to be more human and by extension more humane. Be present. Accept that what we see or hear is never the whole truth. Learn to think in terms of opposites. Pay attention. I’ll end by quoting, in its entirety, the Miller Williams poem:
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Writers have to be the ones to hear the words unspoken, to see the actions barely visible. I write because I want to do more than move through the world. I want it to move through me as well, and I want it, through what I create, to move through you.