I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.”—Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
I’ll admit one consistent aspect of my personality is that yes, I’m slow, in the way O’Connor is talking about, pretty much across the board. When an opportunity is presented, even if I know I’ll probably end up choosing to do it in the end, I can’t commit. The possibility just hangs in front of me as I stare at it. From experience I know I need to sleep on it, and the next day I’ll know what to choose because by then I’ll feel it. Like I said, this slows down my decision-making in general and at times has disrupted relationships because a friend got inspired by a spur-of-the-moment idea and said enthusiastically, “Hey, let’s do this!” And I’m like, erm…can I think about it for a couple days?
Ideas have to grow on me as well as in me, and though it can irritate people in my life, as a writer this inclination is very useful. I stare. I become fixated on an object. Just last night I found myself in the middle of a restaurant parking lot staring up like a goose at a group of clouds passing overhead. Though I try not worry too much about what other people think about me, after a moment I did realize I stood out. You probably don’t want to do this in a rough part of town.
Something else O’Connor says is this: “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”
And, I would add, the more of that object you see in it. In general, the worst thing you can do when working out your ideas and characters is to come to a snap decision and quickly move on. Of course we’re trained to do this in life. We’re taught to expect answers now, if not yesterday. To fix the thing and get to the next thing that needs fixing. But something I love about fiction and memoir writing is these forms force you to spend time with your subjects, to sit still with them, day after day, as they fill out from their centers. This is how a character that sprang from your imagination can surprise you. They can grow, develop their own personalities and inclinations, if you let them.
The point of staring, really—and I’d say all poets know this—is to see below the surface of what you’re looking at. Nothing may open up immediately (or at all that particular day, and you have to accept that too), but once it does it’s usually slow, in layers, and the unfolding can reveal an infinity of depth, but rarely complete answers. Though I would say the mystery does become much more specific. This is the opposite of snap decisions and snap categorizing.
When I bring up that I was raised as a hunter, some of my friends are horrified, but people who’ve never lived this way don’t understand that most of your time hunting is spent simply watching a landscape and the animals that cross it. Watching is a little different than staring. By watching you’re letting the world wash across you; by staring you’re opening yourself up to seeing more deeply into an object. But either way you’ve slowed down immensely and are quite “present” in the moment.
Adults who are casual “day hunter” types are the opposite of the type of hunter I’m talking about, and the same could be said for a quickie type of nature enthusiast. This is the person who’ll see a big bird circling the sky and quickly categorize it as “turkey vulture” (Question solved!), then move on without staring, or even watching, and not noticing the missing section in the bird’s left wing where two feathers got knocked out, or whether it’s circling to gain altitude in an updraft, or if it’s holding steady before dropping because there’s carrion below, the remains of which and how it got there would be an unexpected story the bird is leading the watcher toward.
The hunter version of this is the person who’ll quickly label a deer as a doe and look away, moving on, not noticing her belly is swollen and she’s pregnant, or that there’s a scar on her head where another doe likely raised up on her hind legs and brought down her hoof. To him, the deer is a category he’ll choose to shoot or not; to someone who stares, the deer is a specific creature different from every other deer, every other animal in the world, just as this moment they’re sharing is different from every other moment in the world. Hunting, as I was taught, is about staring, watching, looking, seeing these things, these details, these clues hinting at the stories of these individual creatures’ lives, as well as their collective lives. This experience in hunting is a thousand times deeper than pulling a trigger and bringing down an animal. Though yes, eventually hunting is about that too.
Another example of the snap categorizing approach is in a political argument, when in reply to a position or statement I hear the words, “That’s just…” Any time I hear this phrase, I know a label is coming (Question solved!), and the speaker isn’t wanting to engage in thought, but shut it down; not wanting to be open and explore and experience, but to keep their ideas safe in the box they’ve built around them. People love their boxes. Because if you lose that box, what do you have? Well…mystery. Movement. Change. The unknown. You’re in the moment with your subject, which is thrilling, which is closer to truth, but no longer certain, no longer safe.
To stare at an object and not “get it” off the bat is to allow for the possibility of that object opening and providing its own doorway into what it truly is, even if the farther you get into it the more you realize you’ll never know it completely. You’re a blind man putting your hands on an elephant, except in your case you know there’s more to the elephant than what you’re instantly perceiving. So instead of reporting back that the elephant is an animal that’s shaped like a tree trunk (like the snap judger), you keep your hands on it, and let the texture of its skin play beneath your fingers, and feel the heat rising through it, and the trace of movement from the creature’s breathing that you can only intuit when you’re really still, its lungs expanding and contracting from a far part of the body. You live an experience that tells you that though you have your hands on an elephant, there is much more to the creature than what you perceive. And though you may not be able to say what an elephant is, you “know” in the most intimate sense of the word, that there is a specific mystery here that only deepens so long as your hands remain. In this way this blind man has a greater sense of what an elephant truly is than the sighted person who sums the entire creature up with a quick description, and definitely more than his fellow “blind men” who describe the elephant based upon where they happened to lay their hands, as perhaps a thick snake (trunk), or a wall (side) before moving on. Our blind man may have a less clear visual understanding of the creature than a sighted one, but because he doesn’t sum it up and move on he has a greater understanding of the essence of it.
Which is a form of staring too—putting your hands, your ears, and of course, your eyes on an object (or subject) and staying there, allowing whatever happens to happen. Which is a doorway, a line a writer can follow.
So in your writing keep your hands on the things you stumble across so they might open up to you. When something catches your eye, look, watch, stare, without a timetable, without expectation. More than anything, slow down. Don’t be in a rush when you write. After all, where else do you have to go that’s more urgent? You are exactly where you’re supposed to be: right here with your material. With the entire world and all its parts and pieces that may be willing, even wanting, to share themselves with you.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.