So, you want to be a writer. Great! You will have homework for the rest of your life.
If your first reaction was a pang of, “Oh, fuck that,” then maybe try accounting.
You know that feeling of vaguely forgetting something? Of dishes undone and a parking ticket from … how many weeks ago now?
And it will linger for as long as you’re actively trying to tell stories, because there will always be writing to do. More so, there will always be thinking to do. In order to be a proper storyteller, you must have experiences, absorb them, and fictionalize them as output. And you can’t do that unless you put the time in, ass to chair, and think until the words come.
After struggling in the chair one time too many, you’ll adapt. You’ll learn to modify your eyes in the present so clarity can arrive faster in the future. Every experience you have, you will view through a lens. You will fight with your husband and judge the words coming out for being bad dialogue. You will feel the hot tears at your grandmother’s funeral only for a moment before stepping out and wondering how you’d look in a close-up. A pug in a crop top and booties will ride a longboard down 7th Avenue. Glorious. But instead of simply enjoying the view as he rolls on by, in a split-second, you will ruin that moment for yourself. You will annotate and footnote and stretch it, so later, when you’ve all but forgotten the original memory, you can jam it into a screenplay.
But, Sommer, if you’re capturing time in your head rather than experiencing the feeling of a moment in the moment, how are you able to be a human being?
First of all, never said I was. Let’s just get that settled right off the bat. But for the rest of you, I’ll clarify. A total shutdown of your personhood is not the answer; it’s more about splitting yourself in two.
As a writer, you play God. You create and destroy. Therefore, you are entitled to and must employ an omniscient view of the world—starting with yourself. Step outside of your body and record what you see. It’s sad (a little), this removal from oneself, but incredibly necessary to the act of writing.
Distance equals Perspective.
There are an infinite number of sides in a moment, and we must know objectivity before we can choose one to champion. The stories that endure are those whose characters are malleable, who can evolve with us.
Take a recent example—Marriage Story. Depending on your personal past, you may side with the husband or the wife or even Laura Dern, if you’re a greedy little freak like me. But most audiences empathize with both parties, with their kid, with the tragedy of circumstance. Good writing transcends the binary.
Rumi wrote: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.” You are the writer. It’s your job to sow that field for us, for that is where the nuanced, impartial truth lives.
Yikes, right? What a burden!
But here’s the silver lining: there is safety in constantly playing Devil’s Advocate with your own mind. This safety is twofold. One is a gift for others, and the other, for yourself.
Firstly, it’s a personality bump. A lack of snap judgments almost guarantees a rational mind and calm demeanor. Can’t fly off the handle if your brain is automatically checking her attitude and stepping into the other guy’s shoes.
Finally, your conscience will thank you. The degrees of separation between you and yourself are a protection against that cruel bitch, Accountability. How can you feel, fully, if you’re not feeling as You, The Human but rather as You, The Writer?
Now, if you’re thinking, “Well, this doesn’t sound healthy …”, you’re probably right! But climb down from your horse because it must be so.
The alternative is having no disconnect between the writer and the writing, and then, guess what happens ... you go out like Plath or Woolfe; head in the oven and a pocket full of rocks. To that end, if there’s anything writers have never claimed to be, since the beginning of the written word, it’s “healthy.”
But what do I know?
The only thing I’m sure of is that, without distance, the heart couldn’t handle what the writer’s mind puts it through.
And besides, whether we consciously know it or not, we disconnect from ourselves all the time. We don’t have a choice—forgetting is our birthright.
Memory, in and of itself, is a copy. When you think back on a moment, you’re not seeing it, but rather, your last memory of it. The mind is only a cache of revisions, stacked on top of themselves, unprotected from warps. We play “Telephone” with our own pasts constantly—almost exclusively. We forget the times that don’t serve us anymore, and retrofit the ones that do.
This is how we’ve survived. This is how humans cope with the enormity of our emotional breadth, and unfortunately, this necessary evolutionary aid is singing its swan song. With the Internet, we’re going to have to find another way.
You know “Timehop?" That Facebook feature where you get assaulted by a photo of yourself from eight years ago as soon as you wake up in the morning? Yeah, that’s not natural. Those pictures should be left in a box in a storage unit for our kids to find (and rip us apart for) 30 years from now.
We shouldn’t have such immediate access to every unedited detail of our recent pasts, as individuals or as a country. Our American collective history in the last hundred years is denser than ever before because we’ve figured out a way to digitally archive everything we come across and analyze it a hundred different ways (not me, I’m a moron, but other people). Which is great! But, uh… are we happy? Are we at peace?
How are we supposed to move on from our traumas, on a micro or macro scale, when we never get the distance to let them scab?
They say when going through a break up, it takes a minimum of 21 days of no contact for the brain to rewire new neural pathways to the memories linked to that partner. And every time we check their Instagram or get slapped by a Timehop, that 3-week counter resets to zero. We have become mean, jealous exes, and we are not better for it.
Healing requires forward momentum—social media traps us in amber.
It’s our memories alone, the painfully personal ones that stick, that contain the universality needed to move an audience. But only when the truth is filtered out from the tint of our own judgments.
We, as a people, are getting simultaneously closer and farther away from the truth. Truth is no longer necessarily what you see with your own eyes, nor must it come from any trusted source. It’s in us now, only. And it’s up to the writer to mine her own past so the audience can overcome theirs.
Here’s your homework: get to thinking. And seeing. And separating you from yourself so the two can finally meet.
And do it every day until the practice of feeling becomes as inherent as if you’d never set out to be a writer in the first place.
*Feature Image: Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)