Turn On the Lights and Be Fully Present

Cathy and I put up our Christmas trees this weekend. We have a prelit flocked artificial tree in our family room, and we also put a tree on our front porch. The flocked tree was new last year, and wouldn’t you know it, the lights on one of the sections wouldn’t work. The company had to send us a new section. This year—wouldn’t you know it, again—the lights on a different section wouldn’t work. On top of that, one of our landscape lights stopped working, and the smart bulbs in our porch and garage lights started coming on at irregular times. Oh, and we bought a lantern snow-globe thing, and the second night we had it, the light inside it dimmed. Long story short, we couldn’t get all our lights to come on.

Such can be the case when we sit down to write. Often, we aren’t fully present, and, as a result, we don’t illuminate all the corners of what we’re trying to create. We’re only partially there because we’re distracted. Maybe we’re worrying about something. Maybe we lack the confidence we need in order to write with authority. Maybe we’re filled with envy for other writers and their successes. Maybe we’re inclined to self-distraction—email, web browsing, social media. Whatever the case might be, we cheat ourselves and our work by not immersing ourselves in the writing. “Sometimes,” author Charlotte Eriksson says, “you need to sit lonely on the floor in a quiet room in order to hear your own voice and not let it drown in the noise of others.” It seems to me this is getting harder and harder for us all to do. We tend to fear silence and solitude. I suppose we’re afraid that we’ll vanish if we’re too much alone. Isn’t that one of the appeals of social media? It gives us an instantaneous feeling of connection to other people. As writers, though, we need to make time each day for the sort of silence and solitude that sparks the imagination and the sort of depth of thought and feeling crucial to creation.

We need to do the same on the page. Often, when it comes to prose writing, I see writers wanting to hurry along a plot line, moving through a sequence of events and missing opportunities to burrow down into important moments. Writers who are fully present note the moments that alter their characters’ lives. Ann Beattie, for instance, in her story “In the White Night,” sketches out a very simple plot. A married couple, Carol and Vernon, leave a party and drive home on a snowy night. The one complication on that drive is when their car slides on the slick street before righting itself. That one little skid, though, is enough for Carol to ask Vernon if their host, Matt, had been talking to him about his troubled daughter, Becky. We find out that Carol and Vernon’s daughter, Sharon, has died of leukemia. The story ends with Carol and Vernon in their living room. Vernon falls asleep on the couch, and Carol, instead of going to the bedroom, curls up on the floor beside him, her coat over her for warmth. It’s here where Beattie illuminates the moment by being willing to stay with her point of view character, Carol, who considers the question of what people would think if they knew she and Vernon were sleeping like this in a house with four bedrooms, accepting, finally, this moment of grace: “In the white night world outside, their daughter might be drifting by like an angel, and she would see this tableau, for the second that she hovered, as a necessary small adjustment.” I suggest that Beattie had to be fully present in order to create this small, and yet significant, moment of resonance.

“Always hold fast to the present,” Goethe said. “Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.” If we can shut out distractions, we’ll be better able to shine a light on what really matters in our writing.

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