The Half-And-Half Life

Normal people sing in the shower.

I am a writer. Therefore, I am not a normal person. Instead of singing in the shower, I write dialog. There I was this morning, in the shower, imagining what Mary and Diana would say to one another as they were going through Jekyll’s documents, what they would find. I thought, how will they learn about Beatrice? Then realized that of course, Mrs. Poole would tell them. She’s the one who buys the penny papers. She would have seen the advertisement.

This blog post is a follow-up to the one called “The Inner Life.” That post made me realize the extent to which I live half in and half out of the world. I think all writers do.

In that post, I mentioned riding the T, looking at the people. (Normal people don’t look at one another, on the T.) Sometimes, I try to guess who they are, what they do, based on their external appearance. You can tell the students, for example, but you can even tell the law school students from the undergraduates. Our external appearance, how we present ourselves to the world, conveys so much information about who we are, who we think we are, what we want to be. It’s fascinating to study people in that way, try to guess their stories.

And you can pick up details that you can use in your own stories. A construction worker and a student may wear the same pair of boots, but will wear them differently. Those boots will mean different things on the student and construction worker. If I say, “She wore a great deal of gold jewelry, around her neck, on her fingers,” you will immediately start to get a sense for the kind of woman I’m talking about, although you’ll wait to hear more details. But you will expect something different from a woman who “wore a necklace of small, regular pearls around her neck.”

I suppose what I’m trying to say, really, is that as a writer you never turn it off. You are always only half in the world. You are also at the same time half somewhere else.

I’m not sure how that affects other writers, but it affects me in some relatively strange ways. For instance, it’s easy for me to lose a sense for what’s real. I will be walking through the Arnold Arboretum, looking at the lilacs, remembering them so I can describe their look, their scent. (English and Russian lilacs are completely different. Did you know? You need to pay attention to these details, when you’re a writer.) So I can write, “She walked down the avenue of lilacs, their panicles just starting to open, trying to capture their elusive perfume.” Something like that. And suddenly I’ll remember where I am, somewhere much less romantic than where I imagined.

It can be a little scary, living half in and half out of the world.

On the other hand, the world becomes a magical place, filled with stories. With possibilities, because stories are possibilities. I think writers tend to seek out stories. Tonight, I watched part of a travel show on PBS. The traveler was visiting all the tourist sights in Budapest, a city where I have spent some time. And I thought, how dull! He’s missed the whole magic and romance of Budapest. What you want to do in Budapest is walk along the twisting old streets, looking at the nineteenth-century architecture. Stop at a grocery store, buy bread and butter and cheese and salami and tomatoes. (Remember to bring your own bag, because they don’t give you plastic bags in the grocery stores in Budapest.) Or stop at a restaurant that has been in the same place for the last hundred years. Sit in the courtyard, order a thick, spicy stew over dumplings with a Hungarian wine. And in the afternoon, go to the Café Gerbeaud and have chestnut paste with whipped cream (which is one of my favorite desserts in the world).

The half-and-half life is a life that becomes magical, romantic, because you can always tells stories about it. And you can always find stories in it.

I’m not sure that I’m describing it very well.

It’s a life in which your imagination is always working. In which it is always gathering material for stories, and always imagining stories. Sometimes you have to bring yourself back to reality, make sure the bills are paid. But it also allows you to see the genuine magic of the world we live in, the romance of a city, the beauty of an avenue of lilacs (which does actually exist at the Arnold Arboretum).

It provides insight. It’s like the fairy ointment that allows visitors to fairyland to see things they could not otherwise see.

(It also allows you to see that some of the things we believe are real are actually stories.  The stock market, for instance.  Can you think of a better example of magical thinking?  The value of a share of stock exists because we believe it exists.  Like fairies.)

And of course, the half-and-half life allows you to write stories. Which allow other people to see fairyland too. That’s part of your function as a writer, allowing other people to see things they might not otherwise see themselves, to say, “Yes, that is actually how lilacs smell,” or “I’d like to walk down the twisting, narrow streets of that city.”

These are preliminary thoughts. What I’m trying to do is describe how I experience the world, which I think is as a writer. But it’s a difficult topic, isn’t it? And I don’t know if other writers experience it the same way.

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8 Responses to The Half-And-Half Life

  1. I think all artistic types look at things and experience things very different to non artistic types. This starts out even as early as childhood. My very literal six year old son looked at a picture of an ancient Chinese Pagoda this week and his brain saw cylinders and cones. My five year old daughter saw rich reds, lovely ornate carvings and beautiful angles in the same pagoda.

  2. I have the exact same experience, Dora. I’m always trying to sponge up the details of any memorable experience I have, so that I can fit it into my fiction later. I really hope that people aren’t creeped out when I observe them closely.

    “The value of a share of stock exists because we believe it exists.” The same goes for any type of currency, actually. Which is really scary to ponder.

  3. ada says:

    When I was a kid, I liked to stand on my head and pretend the floor was the ceiling and the ceiling was the floor. The house would suddenly become this strange new place.

    I still look at the world from odd angles.

  4. You have just described much of my motivation for creating the Studio in the way that I have: so that when I’m here, it’s an immersive experience.

    Seven years ago, when we started the renovations, we spent a few thousand dollars on trees to plant in a forest along the Northeast lawn. The nursery guys were instructed to plant the trees in a specific arrangement I’d designed, because, as I explained to them, when the trees grew together, I wanted to have a lit pathway winding through them. (My Fairy Forest).

    They asked if my having a bunch of trees outside the Studio would help me write and draw better. And I said yes, yes, yes, absolutely. And it does.

  5. Anita Gleason says:

    Thank you for a beautiful post. I’m not a writer, nor a professional artist (I teach writing –and other subjects to elementary students and paint as a hobby). However, the way that you look at the world parallels my own, and has for as long as I can remember. Growing up with stories, I think, makes one a little more sensitive to the possibilities of stories all around us, and that possibility–that “What if…” can lead to so many more creative things, even if they only stay in our heads as a more than pleasant thought. Thank you for giving clarity to something I’ve felt but been unable to adequately express, as well as food for thought to pass along to my students!

  6. Carrie says:

    I am not a ‘writer’ in the professional sense but have always loved language and literiture and written for my own ends. I am very familiar with that half submerged feeling you describe and often find it really, really hard to come back into the real world when I’ve been writing or reading. I remember once going for a walk in a daze after many hours of existing in another world and becoming aware that there was a narrative of my own actions going on in my head… ‘ she climbed the stile into the stubble field where the twisted oak grew, crows crowded ragged over the plough, pitching and squabbling over spoils as she sank one boot after the other into the heavy grasping earth…’ etc…

  7. Maery Rose says:

    I think you struck another chord. Yes, I “write” in the shower, while I walk, bike, and drive, and while observing people and even when I’m part of the conversation. Sometimes I think in dialects. I also choreograph in my head as I sit at work, wanting so much to get up and run. When driving out west or up in the northern forests, I picture Native Americans and early settlers riding or driving through the area. How did they do it?! I try to always carry a notebook and pen everywhere I go so I can capture these thoughts and ideas because I don’t remember them otherwise. I also almost always have a camera with, so I can capture the details of how the clouds look like scoops of ice cream or the details of a fern unfolding and look back at the photo and write down everything I see. I have even carried a recorder, although not as often as I should, to record the sound of crows screeching at each other or other sounds I want to remember. I wish I had one to record all the stories my family has told when they gather, which, as an adoptee who was separated for so long, I hunger for every detail and the flavor that each telling brings. Sorry, you got me going…

  8. Cyndi says:

    That’s a writer’s brain, for sure. Try explaining it to a NON-writer and they’ll sign you up for therapy 😉

    But I’m with you all the way. My best times are dreaming the story and figuring out the plot twist that had me stumped.

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