Most of us tend to live life in the future. What I mean by that is that while we are moving minute-by-minute through the day, we are looking ahead to the next hour, the next day, the next week, the next year. We plan ahead to be better prepared for what’s coming so we are more organized or better able to handle changes that may arise.
There is nothing wrong with advanced planning, but sometimes it’s a good idea to stop looking forward and instead focus on the moment.
I had a conversation recently with a very wise woman named Meg. I was talking to her about all the things going on in my life that are causing me a lot of stress and the impact it was having on me. I mentioned that it was even hard to write – my usual way for coping with stress – and that this was creating even more stress for me. She waved her hands in front of her and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You need to slow down and experience the moment.” She told me to put my hands in my lap, close my eyes, and take deep breaths in to the slow count of ten, then let them out to the count of ten. Now – we all know the deep breathing trick, and I was happy to oblige, so I did the breathing, and when I was finished, my eyes popped open and I started to launch into another topic.
“Whoa!” Meg said. “I’m not done yet.” She had me do the breathing again, but this time, she told me to focus on my hearing. So, for one minute as I did the deep breathing, I tuned into what my ears were picking up. As we were sitting in a coffee shop at the time, there was the typical noise of conversations, the hiss of the espresso machine and the milk steamer, the beep of the cash register, but I was surprised to notice I could hear dripping water from somewhere, and that the kid sitting to one side of me had the music turned up loud enough that I could hear what was playing in his headphones.
We repeated the exercise with the sense of smell and I realized that, besides the smell of coffee, I could smell a man’s cologne, cigarette smoke from the patio outside, the scent of lemon (I don’t know where it came from), and my own laundry detergent in my clothes. When the focus was touch I realized I had an ache in my left shoulder, that my socks were uncomfortable, and that as I rested my hands on the table, I could feel my pulse in my wrist beating against the metal table top. When I focused on sight I noticed the cloudy sky was the same shade of blue as my best friend’s eyes, that on the table next to us, someone had drawn a heart with his or her finger tip that could only be seen at an angle, and that the veins on the back of my hands were more obvious than I’d ever noticed before.
All of this was incredibly helpful as far as my stress, but I’ve discovered that it’s a good lesson for writing as well. Often as writers we are so worried about connecting scenes together, moving our characters along, that we forget that our characters live in the moments we create for them. We have to take a deep breath and allow the character to experience the seconds as they pass and let them pay attention to and live in the details around them. Our characters have the same senses as we do, and those need to be incorporated, but it’s not as simple as describing those sensory details. Each moment, each breath, is a unique experience. Ten people in a room doing this same exercise will have ten different experiences. As writers, we have to take our own experiences and extend them to our characters. In order to do that effectively, we have to experience each unique moment and look for the details that give it life, give it meaning, and add to our lives in some way. Then we can extract those moments and use them to paint a richer canvas in our stories.
Give it a try. Slow down, make each breath count, and experience the moment to its fullest. This is a gift to your writing, but a gift to your soul as well.