Friday, September 7, 2012

The importance of eye contact in writing

When you have a crying 4-month-old there are a series of go-to techniques a parent has to calm them down: offer food, see if their diaper needs to be changed, or rock/sway/bounce/do your best impression of what a waltz might look like. But sometimes you do all that and the kid is still crying. 

I find that the times when I have the most trouble soothing Jovie are when I'm rushing to calm her down because I have something else I'd like to get done. It's as if she senses that I'm just trying to placate her in order to get on to more important things.

But Jovie knows that she is the most important thing. And she chooses to remind me of that by crying. I've found that in these moments of unsoothable crying, sometimes I'll I have to do is is take a breath and look down at her. And if she can blink back the tears, she'll look back up at me. And -- wonder of wonders -- stop crying.

Because all she really wanted after all that was just someone to acknowledge and connect with her.

I think, just like babies, that people crave connecting with other people. Since I've been staying at home with the girls, I'm all to aware the importance of connecting with people (well especially adult people). I find myself getting chatty with cashiers and strangers at the park just because I crave that interaction (Brad will say that I did that long before the kids ... which I suppose it's true. He'd probably be horrified to learn I do it a lot more now).

What does this have to do with writing? Well -- beyond enjoying the process of stringing together words, sentences, paragraphs into (hopefully) a novel -- I write with the hopes of connecting with people. 

You know those moments in your day when an emotion blindsides you? You're listening to a song, or reading a book or watching something on TV and there's a line or a scene that grabs you and causes a reaction or elicits and feeling you didn't even know was buried in you? (Like that supreme joy you get when the only thing it takes for your crying baby to calm down is just making eye contact with you.)

Beyond Eleanor and the dead guy I'd been struggling to figure out what I wanted to say with this novel. What message it should carry. OK -- let's be honest -- what it should be about. And then I was at the hospital awaiting treatment for rabies (long story) and I saw this quote posted on the wall of the ER:

“The ancient redwood trees, huge as they are, have a very shallow root system. Yet, they cannot be blown over by the strongest wind. The secret of their stability is the interweaving of each tree’s roots with those that stand by it. Thus, a vast network of support is formed just beneath the surface. In the wildest storms, these trees hold each other up.”--  Dawna Markova

And I had one of those moments that kinda made me throat swell (or was that the rabies?). And I also got some clarity on what I wanted to write about. The bigger picture.

But even if I don't give readers (or even just reader) a big revelatory moment, I'd settle for a quiet one. 

Say what you will about e-books -- but it is very cool to be able to highlight those quiet moments in the books your read and to see that other people have taken note of the same passages that speak to you. Connecting!

I recently finished the fantastic Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Known World" and had several passages highlighted, included this one -- a gift of clarity to me about someone I care about:

"He stood there for a very long time, and the longer he stood, the more he sank. All the heart tea had for living in the world began to leave him. He could feel the life running down his chest, his arms and his legs, doing something for the ground that it had never been able to do for him. If God had asked him if he was ready right then, there would have been only one answer. 'Just take me on home. Or spit me down to hell, I don't care anymore. Just take me away from this.' "
Of course, there are plenty of less morose things that hit me, too. Like when Signing Time: "In a House" comes on Nick Jr. and the sign language lady sings "I think that she'll be my best friend one day" with footage of sisters hugging each other and then I think about how blessed I am to have such wonderful sisters.

(As an aside - in looking for a link to this song, I discovered the woman behind it had been a folk singer who took up singing and signing when she discovered her 14-month-old daughter was deaf  - you just never know where life will take you, do you?)

As mentioned previously, Florence + the Machine gets me all the time, too ... although, I think she speaks more to my 23-year-old self. 

I've probably rambled long enough at this point. So I'll close with one last moment. the last line in this lovely song:

What's grabbed you lately?

Redwood courtesy of berneister1 on Flickr

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