Yesterday I was inducted into the Western New Mexico University chapter of Delta Mu Delta, a business network. I know nothing about business, but the group was thinking outside the box, which is why they invited me to join. I made a short speech, during which I told a couple of stories, as is my wont. Here’s one of them:
A decade ago I was teaching a Creative Writing class in Asiago, Italy. Every day we did a free write. The students would write for ten minutes on a given topic, and then we’d sit in a circle and listen to what they’d written.
It was a beautiful day so I took the students outside for their free write. Actually, I took them to a cemetery. They wrote. We gathered and listened. They’d all written pretty pieces about the birds and the trees and the dappled sunlight blah blah blah. I said, “OK, now go and look at the headstones on the graves. Look at the names and dates.”
It was only then that the students noticed we were in a military cemetery. The bodies buried beneath us belonged to men cut off in their prime: dead at twenty, twenty-five, thirty. We were surrounded by the ghosts of young soldiers. I told the students to write again.
They wrote. We gathered and listened. This time they wrote about “the young men.” The young men did this, the young men did that, blah blah blah. I said, “No. Young men isn’t enough. You have to name them. That way you dignify them. “Young men” is an abstraction. Good writing is specific.”
My point was that as a writer you have to look and look again and keep looking until you understand the very essence of the thing. And even then your work has only just begun because then you have to convey that “thing” to the reader. Writing isn’t about getting something down on paper. It’s about getting something into someone else’s head.
And it occurred to me on that day ten years ago that many people – even bright, talented, educated people – simply don’t look closely enough. Looking closely is a habit, a skill that will last a lifetime. It’ll help you to find solutions to any kind of problem, to come up with new, useful ideas, to understand systems whether they be corporate, physical, governmental, whatever. And it’s a skill that’s essential to critical thinking. Buckminster Fuller said, “everything you’ve learned as obvious becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe.”
If you want to write, first you have to look. And listen.