Taking Notes on Life
Writers are in the business of noticing. Just as the skilled eye of a painter takes in a sunset and sees subtle undertones of color and the play of positive and negative space, writers look at a stranger’s face or a tree branch or the slant of afternoon light and see a story.
Everything we ever write is an attempt to convey what we notice. It is not that writers have some monopoly on the ability to notice. Far from it. Everyone is capable of pausing in any moment of their lives to pay attention. But as writers, we cultivate this habit. Also, we cheat a little by taking notes.
The chapter of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that we mulled over this week was entitled “Index Cards.” And she meant literal index cards. As in, keep one with you and write down your ideas. She has made it a practice, and thinks we all should too.
Maybe the banality of note-taking goes against the romantic notion of a writer as a teeming brain, slurping coffee at all hours in a darkened basement with a typewriter for his only company. But, I agree with Lamott that writers desperately need to go out into the world. After all, we are interested in creating worlds; worlds complete with enough ordinary and oft-overlooked details to render our prose realistic.
So, we cultivate and strengthen the skill of noticing like we would any other skill—by practicing.
And we practice scribbling whenever and wherever our ideas might hit. Many of us know that once you are immersed in a writing project you find that the world around you is constantly handing you the raw material you need.
Maybe a clip of dialogue in the grocery aisle is the impetus for a new minor character?
Or a run-in with a neighbor who teaches you something about gardening inspires your main character’s hobby?
Or the opportunity to accompany a friend and their child on an afternoon escapade becomes a telling memory your character cherishes of a childhood outing?
These events, if captured, can serve to flesh out our characters so that they walk off the page and into the reader’s imagination, accompanying him or her long after the final page of the novel. These daily details are the very human substance out of which resonant stories are made.
And without a pen, and a trained attention, we forget them or miss them altogether.
Agile Writers, in one sense, is another place where ideas may come to light on the tip of your pen and beg to be written. The group is a diverse cross-section of the Richmond metro area. Variations in age, gender, socio-economic, educational, ethnic, religious and professional identities abound. We are a group of strangers pulled together by our shared dedication to writing. And we are human resources for each other.
Agile Writers is also a place to gather with others who, like you, make it their business to see the world in all of its prismatic variance. Sometimes our individual wells of inspiration may run dry, but being in community means discovering the truth time and again that there really is an inexhaustible supply of ideas out there.
Your job is to carry a pen. Or, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself a member of Agile Writers, you can always borrow your neighbor’s.