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.