As both a student and teacher of writing, I have multiple conversations each week about “reading like a writer.” We strive to read the works of others the way a ceramic artist looks at a bowl or a carpenter eyes a handcrafted rocking chair. “How was this piece built?” we ask. “What techniques that I already know were used? What do I see that I don’t utilize in my own work? What combination of strategies surprises me, makes me think about my craft differently?”
What we talk less about, however, is the hard work of living like a writer, constantly examining the minute details of our lives under a microscope, analyzing, scrutinizing and re-analyzing our actions and emotions.
The unexamined life is not worth living. I agree, but the overexamined life has pitfalls, too.
Sometimes I slog through life as an out-of-body experience, like I’m watching a cinematic version of my daily existence. At times I relish this. I still vividly recall a scene nearly 10 years ago in South Boston, Massachusetts, where I watched a homeless man feed a loaf of bread to the pigeons in an abandoned housing project. “This is important,” I thought, but I didn’t entirely know why. I was touched by the image of a man with virtually nothing sharing his meal with the often-scoffed flying urban rodents. I imagined what might be going on in the head of the homeless man. Did he see himself in those pigeons and not want to abandon them? Were the individual pigeons familiar to him — friends or confidants even? Or were his actions completely nonchalant, a way to dispose of stale bread that couldn’t satisfy his own human hunger?
This is what writer and professor Rachel Manley calls the work of my “subconscious editor.” My subconscious editor branded this image, this scene, on my brain forever, hung a red flag on it. I haven’t truly written about it yet (not counting the above), but I likely will someday. It will appear in a story as a pivotal moment in someone’s life, maybe even mine.
Sometimes my subconscious editor has a sense of humor. As I exited the subway station at Downtown Crossing one day, I spotted a walking stick tucked between two newspaper stands. No blind person in sight. I described the image of the abandoned walking stick in my journal that night and poked around at possible explanations, possible stories that might emerge. Was someone staging a hoax that involved pretending to be blind? Had a blind person collapsed and been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance? Been kidnapped? Absent-mindedly forgotten the stick like I routinely do my gloves and umbrella?
When my subconscious editor’s sharp-focused magnifying glass zeroes in on my own life, the personal stuff, the over-analysis is less amusing.
Last week, for example, my subconscious editor started shouting at me during my grandma’s funeral. Suddenly my mental video camera zoomed in on my own hand, fingers interlaced tightly with my boyfriend’s. The service was quiet except for the music — a song chosen by grandma — and the intermittent sobbing surrounding us. I squeezed Colin’s hand tighter each time the tears welled up in my eyes, and he stroked my hand as best he could with his thumb as I cried. My mental video camera pulled back, panning the rows in front of us. My mom was seated in the very front with her siblings and, for the most part, their spouses. But my dad was two rows back and far to the right, a gaping distance from Mom. Immediately beside me, my sister cried softly. Her husband was seated next to her but offered her no obvious physical sign of comfort. No hand squeeze, no arm around her shoulders. They each sat alone together in their grief. My mental video camera zoomed in again on my hand in Colin’s.
“This is what A. J. Verdelle means by a set scene,” I thought. “This is an important moment in my story. This says something about our family’s differences and the way we grieve our losses.”
I don’t know what, exactly, it says yet, but as Rachel advises, I’ll explore this moment a lot in my writing. Some clarity is bound to evolve. After all, my subconscious editor doesn’t make mistakes.