When I was a junior in college, I took an expository writing course taught by a graduate student named Trey Greer. On the first day of class, he assigned a five hundred-word essay: describe something, anything. At the time, I was convinced that I was a real writer, an undiscovered Eudora Welty or William Faulkner. Understand, I had absolutely no interest in writing. I wanted to be a Writer; and so I put off the work of the essay until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, I went grocery shopping. And sitting outside the Winn-Dixie, perched on top of a hundred-pound bag of Purina dog chow, was a woman with a tambourine.
“Girl,” she said, when I walked past her, “give me some of that change.”
I stopped and stared at her.
“That’s all right,” she said, “go on and look at Bernice. She don’t care.” She beat the tambourine softly against her thigh and started to sing a song about the moon rising up in the night sky like a gold coin and how it was hanging up there all shiny and new and nobody was able to get hold of it and spend it. She called it a “smug old moon.”
When she was done singing, she held the tambourine out to me and I dropped some money in it and turned around and went back home and wrote an essay describing her. I wrote down the words of the song that she sang. I described her broken fingernails (painted purple) and her blue eye shadow and how she sat atop the bag of dog chow as if it were a throne. I wrote how, after I dropped my money in the tambourine she said, “God bless you, baby.”
A week after I turned in the essay, Trey Greer read it aloud to the class.
“There is something extraordinary about this essay,” he said, “and I want you to tell me what it is.”
Extraordinary! Me! It was just as I had long suspected: I was a genius. I was born to be a Writer. I would be famous!
When Trey finished reading he said, “What is it that makes this essay worth our time?
Nobody said anything.
“It’s not the writing,” he said. “There’s nothing extraordinary about that.”
Not the writing? I sank a little lower in my desk. What else could possibly make an essay extraordinary?
“I’ll tell you,” he said to the silent, bored class. “The person who wrote this actually took the time to see the person she was describing. That’s what writing is all about. Seeing. It is the sacred duty of the writer to pay attention, to see the world.”
So what? I didn’t want to see the world. I wanted the world to see me. Trey Greer, I decided, had no idea what he was talking about.
Not until years later when I finally made a commitment to writing, when I was fighting despair, wondering if I had the talent to do what I wanted to do, did those words come back to me. And what I thought was this: I cannot control whether or not I am talented, but I can pay attention. I can make an effort to see.
Because of Winn-Dixie is the result of that effort. It is a book populated with stray dogs and strange musicians, lonely children and lonelier adults. They are all the kind of people that, too often, get lost in the mainstream rush of life. Spending time with them was a revelation for me. What I discovered is that each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine. What stories are hiding behind the faces of the people who you walk past everyday? What love? What hopes? What despair?
Trey Greer did know what he was talking about. Writing is seeing. It is paying attention.
I think of it this way: my characters sing songs and I stop to listen to them and when the song is done I give them my money and they say, “God bless you, baby.”
And I feel that I have been blessed. Over and over again.
- WRITE. This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but there are a lot of people (and I was one of them for a very long time) who think that somehow they can become a writer without doing the work of writing. Make a commitment to yourself to write a little bit (a paragraph, a page, two pages) every day.
- REWRITE. You can’t sit down and expect something golden and beautiful and wise to spring forth from your fingers the first time you write. You can, however, reasonably expect a piece of writing to get better each time you rewrite it. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough; writing means rewriting.
- READ. You have no business wanting to be a writer unless you are a reader. You should read fantasies and essays, biographies and poetry, fables and fairy tales. Read, read, read, read, read.
- LOOK—at the world around. Pay attention to details. Open your heart to what you see.
- LISTEN—to people when they talk. Everyone has a story. Eavesdrop. Join in conversations. Ask questions. And pay attention when people answer them.
- BELIEVE IN YOURSELF—there is no right or wrong way to tell a story. This is one reason that writing is so wonderful and terrifying: you have to find your own way. Be kind to yourself. Listen to other people. And then strike out on your own.