Menorahs in windows. Lights on trees. Kinaras on table tops. Pilgrimages. Winter solstice. Family. Friends. Gifts. Giving. Presents.
The list of traditions we enjoy this time of year is long, varied, and lovely. No matter which holiday(s) we celebrate, at the heart of our traditions is an invitation to slow down and notice who we are and where we hail from. To embody the truth of what it means to be human. In a word, to be present.
Yet the demands on our time this time of year can render us anything but present as that invitation to connect with meaning and mystery gets buried beneath a growing list of to-dos.
And our writing? All too often when the going gets busy our writing time is the first thing to go.
Which begs the question as we enter the last two weeks of this busy month: How can we, in the frenzy of the season, remain present to the warmth of our traditions and retain our writing practice?
Well, here’s some good news. Writing memoir is a present-time activity. It slows us into the moment and connects us to our deepest, wisest, unwounded self. And when we are connected to our glorious self, we are here. Being who we are and noticing where we come from.
From this point of connection—this state of presence—time expands to meet our needs. We are no longer racing to get more of it because we are of it.
Descriptive writing—writing details through your sensory perception (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch)—is the quickest way I know to write through the “noise” and into a state of present moment awareness.
Think about it. We experience the present moment through our senses. Our senses tether us to the present moment. Take a moment now to listen. What do you hear? Notice how that sound pulls you into the present and, as long as you tune into it, holds you here.
Writing through our senses transports us into narrative.
In her essay “The Dark Art of Description,” originally published in The Iowa Review and later selected by Mary Oliver for inclusion in Best American Essays 2009, Patricia Hampl shares that she taught herself to write description by describing art and objects, producing “still-life descriptions that ran on for several pages.”
One of the objects she described in detail was a teacup. Lo and behold, writing the details of that teacup “had a way of sheering off into narrative.” Here’s what she discovered:
The teacup I was describing had been given to me by my mother. And once I thought of the fact that she had bought these cups, made in Czechoslovakia, as a bride just before the Second World War, I was writing about that war, about my mother and her later disappointments, which somehow were, and were not, part of this fragile cup. Description—which had seemed like background in novels, static and inert as a butterfly pinned to the page of my notebook—proved to be a dynamic engine that stoked voice and even more propelled the occasional narrative arc. Description, written from the personal voice of my own perception, proved even to be the link with the world’s story, with history itself. Here was my mother’s teacup, made in Czechoslovakia before the war, and here, therefore, was not only my mother’s heartbreak, but Europe’s. The detail was surely divine, offering up miracle after miracle of connections out of the faithful consideration of the fragments before me.
How to “Sheer Off” into Narrative in Ten Minutes
Before you do another thing in the name of getting things done this season, stop.
Notice an object that holds meaning for you.
Is it the menorah in your window? An ornament on your tree? A piece of cloth your mother spread on her table before you began using it on yours?
Now, sit down with this object and with paper, and pen (or laptop). Set your timer for ten minutes, and describe this object in detail.
Begin by writing only what you perceive with your senses. Does your object have a shape? A color? A scent? A texture? Does it give off sound?
Really give your object your laser attention. And if your description “sheers off into narrative” like Patricia Hampl’s still-life of her teacup did, go with it. Experience the power of descriptive writing to transport you into narrative.
Ten minutes. It’s doable, even during what is for so many of us the busiest time of the year.
My suggestion? Repeat this exercise daily for the remainder of this season. Ten minutes a day to write your way back to yourself and into a narrative that just may become one of the first pieces you submit in 2015.
Me, I’m going to write my son’s first slippers, which are hanging on our tree, a pair of silk slippers that his uncle sent him from Japan to commemorate his birth twenty years ago.
You? What’s your object? Let us know in the comments below, and let’s see if we can’t create a tapestry of “narrative nuggets” that beguile us into the present, a foothold from which we can explore the mystery of who we are and where we hail from.
Wonderful exercise! Thank you.
You are very welcome, Mary Ellen. Let me know how it goes for you! Best, Marilyn
Great exercise. My object is a lamp gifted to me by my daughter. It’s colors, curvatures, and glistening opaque base narrate our relationship as well as the intergenerational relationships preceding me.
Thanks for generating another thread in a memoir in progress.
Delia, what a beautiful comment! I love the image of a lamp narrating and “illuminating” (all that light!) relationships. I would love to hear how this exercise goes for you. Keep me posted on your memoir in progress! Marilyn