it is really astounding how quick you become blind to normal things in your neighborhood. This city is so surprising. Today I saw a minibus with a sticker of a sultan’s signature on the back window. In between the minibus traffic, an old man with a grey stovepipe hat was pushing a luggage cart stacked with all his belongings. Up the street from the docks, two black cats were gnawing on a dead bone. There’s a guy selling potatoes out of a van–I can hear this even while typing–because he’s driving around and on loudspeaker announcing, "potatoes potatoes onions onions." Dead vines hang down in root sheets from facades normally green and overgrown in summer. Everyone seems to be out in the neighborhood, enjoying the rare winter sun.

When I was alone and taking the train across America like, oh, three years ago now, I found this dollar notebook, hardcover, with a picture described as "Hungarian Love Letter theme" by the company. It was a drawing of a table strew with letters and roses and I think a clock in a bell jar. It kept me sane. On the train, on multi-day trips across the country, there was nothing to do except stare out the window and write down what I saw. I followed VS Naipaul’s rules for beginning writers:

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.
2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of.If you break this rule you should look for other work.
5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

It made me a better writer, but more importantly I think, it helped me chill out. Focus on the details, stay conscious of what’s happening to you. It helped me pay attention to my experiences, because otherwise I’d have nothing to write about.

If you are also feeling like you day could use some extra consciousness, go ahead and notice three small details about your day. Then either write them down somewhere very secret and show it to nobody, or go ahead and write a comment and put it on this post.

1 comment
  1. alrighty then.

    just now i was in the coal creek starbucks indulging myself with not just my usual doubletallnonfatlatte but also with one of those cellophane-wrapped, over-priced, amazingly good biscotti things that are only good if you can dip them into foamy coffee and milk.

    that’s what i was doing. at the next table i overheard two women talking. the one in the coral-colored sweater who looked like a 4th grade teacher was reading questions off a small laptop and typing in the answers the other one came up with.

    embarrassing, personal questions! coral sweater lady must be some kind of life coach, or pastor, or something . . . because nobody would sit in public with a random friend and try to answer this:

    on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is “i can’t go on” and ten is “everything is fantastic,” how would you rate your life satisfaction?

    i’m dunking my amazeballs biscotti into the latte, and waiting . . . and thinking . . . what the fuck sort of question is that?

    the questionee is hemming and hawing and trying to NOT say, for the love of jeebus, do you think i’d have come to you in your droopy coral sweater if my life was great? what she actually says is: i’d have to say nine . . .

    there, dear ernie. my details don’t come in threes, but thanks so much for the prompt. i miss you.


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