Thoreau, that perpetual present-moment monger and chanticleer to the blind and busy, wrote perhaps the most beautiful and influential ode to the life-altering benefits of heeding the present. In the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” of Walden, after taking note of the woods’ vital sounds and sights about him, he writes that in comparison with sculpting clay or carving statues “it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”
Every writer might be wise to try it. Why? Existentially, so you can live in such a way that no day slips past your imagination. Pragmatically, so you can create a world of words your readers’ imagination can enter. To be able to write about the cracks in a basketball player’s knuckles or the patches of dirt beneath a gardener’s fingernails might require having a useful imagination and memory that can store and then recall images in the moment of writing.
But how do we develop a useful imagination and memory? How do we begin? Why not begin with reassessing how you spend each day, or, rather, how each day spends you? How much of the bird talk or office chatter do you hear? How much of the asparagus tips do you taste? Perhaps, we need to pay more attention to the phenomenological world of hiccups and paper cups and paper cuts. We don’t have to sweat the small stuff. We just need to heed it.
We write from the center by grounding ourselves where we are: here in our bodies, in our minds, in this world. Heeding this world’s physical currency can help you not only to re-embrace and explore your intricately physical existence; it may give you the sensibilities to create virtual worlds of words that stem from an authentic source.
Much of this journey involves becoming more aware of how your own creative faculties function. In cultivating presence we hone perception and imagination. The three faculties of perception, memory, and imagination, it turns out, influence one another to create for a writer a rich reservoir.
When we get lost in our mental machinations, our words tend to float into ephemeral abstractions and analysis. We talk and talk on the page instead of write. I know someone who each morning writes whatever she’s thinking to help clear the clutter. The problem with this practice, she says, is she gets caught up in her own “stuff,” in her own spinning wheels and soon spends three hours psychoanalyzing herself. It feels good, she says, for a while, but then she feels spent like her time and cannot write her novel.
Get outside of yourself if you want to find yourself. That’s the advice writer Marvin Bell gives to his students. He’s right. The core self that helps writers craft exquisite worlds for others to enter is not locked up inside some personally embroidered baggage or inside those whirling ego thoughts.
Writing that reverberates with others’ deep imagination strikes me as authentic. It’s authentic because it comes from a source beyond the ego mind’s spinning wheels. Much authentic writing then is sensuous and sensual. Verbs lick us. Images ignite our imaginations. Suggestive diction caresses us. An image in writing does not merely appeal to our senses. An image triggers our inner senses and often impresses upon our reader’s imagination. By inviting themselves into the imagination’s inner sanctum, images dissolve some of the distance among writer, reader, and language. They connect.
What is the way out? Luckily, our bodies come equipped with numerous passageways: the senses. Senses—all five or six or one hundred of them—are our body’s tentacles to the physical world of lightbulbs and sunlight. Sense receptors connect parts of the body with the brain and, like breath, to the natural world. Senses shape our perception of reality, so no wonder yogis often learn first to experience fully and then to harness reactions to the core five sense organs (in Sanskrit, jn¯ana-indriya or the cognitive senses).
No doubt the world’s distractions numb, deafen, and blind us. After staring at a computer for four hours, I can step outdoors and feel my eyes relax and widen. After being in a rancorous town hall meeting or being on Union Square for a few hours, my ears close. The senses lead us, according to one Yoga text, to heaven or hell: heaven if we can harness them, hell if not.
The writer’s imagination is a reservoir, an organic and fluid space that holds images retrieved over the years from paying attention to the small stuff. Presence in this physical world fills that reservoir. And when that reservoir brims with images from broken leaves or the cruel lines of a little girl’s mouth, then a writer has resources, months or years later, for the particularity and sensuousness that round out a virtual world of words.
Life’s details—a mother’s goofy patchwork dress that she wore to her child’s elementary school’s open house, a dog’s distinct chlorine-cedar odor—matter in embodied writing. Ezra Pound implored a young writer in essence, Don’t write “red.” Write “rose” or “rust” or “ruddy.” Toni Morrison’s character Milkman in Song of Solomon remains with me in part because of how he earned his nickname (a man saw him being nursed by his mother—when the boy was ten years old).
Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional Africa in The Poisonwood Bible remains in my memory for the unique, subjective way she transformed it through five distinct female perspectives. The novel revolves around a missionary family from Georgia that travels to the Congo. The first daughter to narrate the story says in her first sentence, “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.” That detail says a mouthful about the family and especially the mother. We learn that the mother also packs “a dozen cans of Underwood deviled ham; Rachel’s ivory plastic hand mirror with powdered-wig ladies on the back; a stainless-steel thimble; a good pair of scissors; a dozen number-2 pencils; a world of Band-Aids, Anacin, Absorbine Jr.; and a fever thermometer.” These intimate details are the particularities, the details of a narrator’s or a character’s unique experience and identity. They invite readers into the rich textures of a singular world of words.
“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams said decades ago. Although the quotation has been misappropriated frequently from this author of poems about red wheelbarrows and broken glass to mean that one should simply describe things and not think about ideas, he was onto something that cognitive scientists now recognize: Ideas, like language, stem from our physical reality. I’m curious then to explore this intricately wired vehicle that shapes so much of my experience, for our bodies are made to proffer us the particular details and images that establish an authentic style. We might rewrite Williams’s quotation as “No ideas but in the body.”
(excerpted and rearranged from The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing, revised and updated ed. Monkfish Publishing 2008)
Jeffrey Davis serves as Tiferet’s Fiction Editor. He is a writer, creativity consultant, & speaker. He teaches Yoga as Muse Workshops around the world and coaches both aspiring and best-selling writers to hone their craft and write from their center. He also teaches in Western Connecticut State University’s MFA in Professional and Creative Writing Program. Receive tools and free e-newsletter at centertopage.com.
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