A crash in the doorway. Our class looks up. What happened?
Our instructor Sylvia quickly assigns a writing task. Her lesson from that day would guide me in years to come. As a reporter, alert to details, I crouched behind a car on an Indiana street observing a bank robbery. Later, as a poet, I watched a red-bellied snake slither over a log in a blackwater swamp, thrilled at the honk-honk-honk of geese flying south in the fall, and celebrated the feel of river clay.
Sylvia’s task? Describe what just happened.
The lesson? Pay attention.
That’s what writers do. We’re a curious breed. Sylvia’s inquisitive spirit continues to inspire me throughout a lifetime of writing challenges.
What had happened in that doorway?
None of us knew. Sylvia, a former ballerina, ever light on her feet, even in her 60s, used our inattention to teach us to observe. I began to think of myself as a sort of camera with a brain, capturing moments and squirreling them away to be unearthed on a rainy day. The habit has served me well, although a side effect, which may just be part of my personality, leaves me feeling like a watcher rather than a participant in life.
My habit did not help anyone catch bank robbers—my editor fussed at me for endangering my life like a fool—but it did help me be more perceptive.
I practiced listening, observing, sniffing out details.
When I retired, I turned to poetry because, while I had been focusing on elections, zoning issues, air pollution standards, and on and on, I allowed myself to write four lines in my journal daily.
Usually, I was too sick of words by the end of my day to write more than that. Eventually those lines grew into poems. My first self-published collection of poems, The Pantyhose Declarations, drew on observations I remembered such as my heavyset Aunt Geneva who:
yanks, shifts, pulls
dances from leg to leg
like a sumo wrestler
fighting with that damn corset
on her wedding day
When I wrote Black Dirt Days: Poems as Memoir about growing up on an Iowa farm, images came flooding back, such as an Easter ice storm:
The weather’s unsettled on Easter Eve
like a restless cow about to calve,
the land licked clean by heady winds.
Observation fuels imagination
Creativity happens when I’m so engrossed in observation that everything I experience has potential to enhance the world I’m imagining on the page.
As a writer of poetry and fiction, I’m more of a translator than an observer because my lens now is colored with my own take on a scene. My third book of poems, Gaia’s Cry, gave me the opportunity to focus on our planet and the climate crisis. Since then, I’ve been posting mixed media for Patheos, which focuses on nature’s sacred journey, sharing my observations around spirituality and the Earth’s crisis.
How can we experience the natural world and not be motivated to act?
Define yourself as a writer
Sylvia came into my life when I was a young, stay-at-home mom yearning to be a writer.
I came to learn that a career as a writer and being a writer are not synonymous.
I have been an observer who writes details down all my life whether I was being paid for it or not. I am a writer. That’s a valuable lesson I love to share:
Define yourself. Don’t let others define you.
Over time, I created my own writing process, which includes relaxation, free writing, and meditation. I share that process and my mentor’s memorable tidbits in my book, Moo of Writing: How to Milk Your Potential, newly available as an audiobook.
One of the richest experiences of my life has been encouraging other writers. The past few years, I’ve taught children the Moo process and love the way they observe the natural world with sincere delight. They brim with curiosity.
I often asked Sylvia, ‘How can I ever repay you?’
She always answered, ‘Pass it on, Nan. Pass it on.’
Nan’s wonderful book, Moo of Writing, a unique guide combining science and meditative wisdom, is now out as an audiobook. She is offering 20 free copies to Lightbox Originals readers based across the UK and US in return for an honest review.
To request your copy, please contact Nan here by 7th November.