Living like a Writer

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.


8 Thoughts

  1. Julie, you have a great voice. I think one of your gifts is setting a vivid enough scene to evoke intense memories in your reader…
    I was reminded of two imprinted images in my mind, from ’91. We were traveling by bus in Germany, and a young man afflicted with AIDS (his sign asked for help) sat near us on the bus. He shielded himself as if from a harsh light, but I think he was shielding himself from the disgrace he may have felt or the disapproval he was receiving from the other riders. We stepped off the bus and some time later walked past an eviscerated pigeon, still alive but panting its last breaths in the hard sunlight. Those two images are linked in my mind: the young man seeking help but receiving nothing but disgust, and the dying pigeon lying ignored in the gutter.


  2. Julie, thanks for this. It helped crystallize so many things for me. I’m just finishing up my first annotation so was happy to be reminded of some of the things from the workshops.
    I love the idea of the unconscious editor. I think this is what makes us writers – it is at work consciously and unconsciously all the time. I will follow you on this – thanks for letting me know it was up and running.


  3. Julie, thank you for inviting me. And thank you for the gift of writing you offer here. I have not been back to my work for a bit. The holidays, an ailing mother-in-law, a student teacher…many things…have interrupted me. Rather, I should be using those things. My unconscious editor has been packed away. You’ve helped open the door to bring her out of what I hope was just a fleeting storage.


  4. Julie, thank you so much for sharing this. I love the way you write, what you write and am grateful you’re both practicing (is that okay to say? Are you?), your writing and journalling while sharing it with us. I guess that’s what blogging is, in this case. At any rate, thank you. I’m only a writer because of professional demands, but I always strive to be better, more meaningful, more concise. I am, at least in training, a different kind of artist. Another friend shared this video with me a few days ago and I hope it’s appropriate to share with you and with your readers. I constantly try to uncover what makes art art. I sent this to my mom and it made her cry and she asked me why it did. I can’t explain why – maybe you can? It made me cry too. People in the crowd cry too! It’s from La Traviatta, and I know that not because I run a classical music radio station but because it was the first opera I was in when I was in high school – pure luck.


  5. Wow Julie. Your blog provides wonderful inspiration. I can’t wait to read more. I like this idea of the “subconscious editor”. It has been a long time since I have talked about writing in a purposeful way and I’ve never had useful words to describe what I call “that’s a poem” moments. My notebooks (and mind) are full of these kinds of images that seem ripe for meaning. I just haven’t done anything about them (yet). Perhaps I will now.

    Thank you for sharing.


  6. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful experience, Julie. I truly appreciate it. The opportunity to write and ENJOY writing doesn’t present itself often in my line of work. Short, matter-of-fact sentences are encouraged in science. Actually, blatant speculation is frowned upon. So, it’s very interesting to catch a glimpse of the thought process of a person in a profession where creativity and speculation are encouraged. Your words vividly conveyed the images you described, but they also brought to mind images my own “subconscious editor” stowed away in the recesses of my mind. Most of my inspired moments occur while driving my car, listening to music. I guess that’s my subconscious editor’s way of including a soundtrack. I look forward to reading more of your posts!


  7. Julie, you are now known to me as BBLTF…baby bird learning to fly. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your heart, your tears.

    This is the beginning of great things, I believe.

    I am enlightened and encouraged to explore the possibilities of my own subconscious editor. After all it IS always right!



  8. Julie, as always, I’m impressed and inspired by your writing, your actions. I’m really struck with the scene you painted above of your grandma’s funeral and I really like how it is kind of full circle from going to your brother’s funeral – how your grandma held your hand so you could face it. Very interesting.

    I watched Julia & Julie (or whichever way it goes) and on the cusp of you starting your blog, I’m trying to figure out what I will focus on, what will inspire me. I’m aiming for something by 50 (about 13 months away I think). Yikes!



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