Anyone can be a writer. Really. We are all writing stories in our heads everyday anyway. All you must do to be a writer is pay attention to what you’re paying attention to. It’s strikingly like reclaiming a little bit of childhood, and who doesn’t want that? Here’s what I mean:
- Notice: Taking note of what’s around is the first (and arguably most important) step in writing. What are the five senses taking in? Is it marijuana in the parking garage? Is it a yap-dog next door who can’t get control of himself? Is it broken shards of glass that weren’t at the end of the driveway last night, but the sunrise is arresting them this morning? What makes me stop and say, “Well. That’s something.”? Because whatever that is creates my starting point for writing. Noticing should sound something like, “Huh,” with an unassuming lilt behind it.
- Wonder: “A recent study found the average four-year-old British girl asks her mom 390 questions a day; the boys that age aren’t far behind. Yet chances are, for the rest of her life, that four-year-old girl will never again ask questions as instinctively, as imaginatively, or as freely as she does in that shining moment. Unless she is exceptional, that age is her shining peak” (Berger, 2016). Just so happens, I have a daughter who just turned five. So, this past year, I’ve been living with a master questioner, which has its ups and downs. But I’ve listened to the things she wonders about, and I’ve been taking notes. I want to remember how to do what she does instinctively. From where I sit, it seems adults have forgotten how to look at something and let their mind take them down fresh trails of curiosity. Those sorts of trails are often marked inefficient, a waste of time, silly. But wonder is where the best writing begins. Wonder should sound something like, “Hmmmm…” with a furrowed brow just above it.
- Ask a Question: A proper wonder takes shape by evolving into a question. It’s where the more mature mind takes that four-year-old curiosity and makes it into something that could legitimately change things. Stuart Firestein, in his book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, writes “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.” The kinds of questions that prompt fantastic writing are the ones we don’t personally have answers to yet, even if that’s because of our own lack of experience or lack of knowledge. Paul Harris, an education professor at Harvard University says, “Good questioners tend to be aware of, and quite comfortable with, their own ignorance.” Be willing to not know the answer. That takes a posture of humility, but think of it—when we’re humble, things can only go up from there. Solid questioning should sound like, “You know, I wonder what would happen if…” with a spoonful of enthusiasm running all through it.
- Be Cool with Not Finding an Answer: Sometimes, just asking the question is enough. It creates new pathways in the brain that feel like play. For adults, sometimes the sensation of childlike playfulness is difficult to achieve. So much of our lives are absorbed with lists and work and calendars and texts and getting it all done. But, when we find ourselves in a moment that accesses the child that down deep in there, we know it instinctively in half-a-second. It’s like bells go off and the words, “That was so much fun!” bubble out almost without our notice. Asking a question that may not have an accessible answer and then being able to move on with life until one percolates (or maybe it doesn’t) is the mark of childhood—as well as playful adulthood. It’s a sensation that feels like being at the top of one of those unbelievably tall metal slides they used to put on playgrounds. It’s finally my turn and the best things are ahead—or at least I hope they are! That moment I realize I may find an answer—or I may not—sounds like holding my breath. Silently. With hot hope inside my lungs.
- Search for the answer anyway: Underneath it all, no thought I think is new. No deed I do is magical. And my brain isn’t even close to brilliant. Lots of people have come before me and many of them were crazy smart. Or brilliantly poetic. Or courageously thoughtful. If the question hangs onto me, then I should consider grabbing ahold of it to see what music we can make together, because nobody sees things exactly the way I do. Nobody else is sitting here in this yellow Ikea wingback looking out my sunroom window. So taking my vantage point and marrying it with what past generations (as well as our current one) offer in science, math, religion, history, the arts—all the areas—now, that’s where writing really starts.
And that’s where being an interesting person starts too, because being interesting absolutely begins by being interested. Just like writing starts with reading. We take in the world around us, process our own questions and thoughts through it, and write what we find. That’s how I’ve learned to put words on a page. Really, that’s how I’ve learned to live. When I think about it, that’s how I’ve learned to take in the world. And come to find out, I’ve known it all along.
Ever since I was a kid.
A More Beautiful Question. Berger, Warren. 2016.
Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Firestein, Stuart. 2012.
Candace Echols is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine, and now writes a column for The Daily Memphian.