Greetings. If you're new to the blog, I've been writing from Italy for the past two weeks. I'm now at a workshop for recorder at the Italian Foundation for Early Music in the little city of Urbino. Join me!
My workshop is set up so that each student has a 45-minute lesson every other day. In between, we observe the other students' lessons. There are ten students in my class, so that means more than 6 hours of observing over the course of two days. This is probably useful for everyone else in the class, but for me, with my nonexistent Italian, it's a lot of watching the teacher gesticulate elaborately and wondering what he is saying.
One of the good things about being a writer is that you can use boredom--writers can use everything--so I've been using the hours of watching lessons to take note of things I might want to write about. This morning, for example, this happened:
A girl in the class--she's no older than 17--was having her lesson. She was sitting in front of the class with the teacher next to her and the rest of us facing them. She was playing rather well. The teacher would stop her from time to time, make a correction, demonstrate a technique on his recorder, have her play again. This went on for awhile.
She was in the middle of a piece when the classroom door opened and a man entered. The teacher glanced over at him, his face registering pleasant surprise. The man at the door was obviously someone the teacher was happy to see. He got up, walked over to the man, and struck up a conversation. All this happened while the student was in the middle of playing her piece. Still playing, she glanced uneasily at the teacher, who had apparently abandoned the lesson and was standing by the door engaged in conversation. It was clear she wasn't quite sure what to do. Her thoughts were all over her face: Should I keep playing? Why? He's not even listening to me. But if I stop, it might look like I'm irritated. I guess I'll just keep going. I feel like an idiot playing with the teacher talking to someone else. Everyone's looking at me.
As she kept playing it seemed less like she was having a lesson than performing for the class, although that was clearly not what she intended. She played through to the end of the piece, then simply sat with her recorder in her lap, trying to look at ease with nine sets of eyes on her. Finally, the man at the door left and the teacher returned to his chair next to the student. He resumed the lesson without apology, as if nothing had happened.
As a teacher, my first thought was, I'd never to this to a student. But as a writer, I thought, what a great little scene.
It was no big deal for the girl. At worse, she was vaguely uncomfortable. That's what made it a great scene. Life is built out of these types of small discomforts: miscommunications, awkward moments, slight embarrassments. A woman waves at you from across the street, and you wave enthusiastically back before realizing she is a total stranger hailing a cab.You tell a joke and no one laughs--or worse yet, someone looks offended. Standing in line at the bank, you discover a fat blue blog of toothpaste on the front of your white shirt, and when you try to wipe it off, it smears into a big splotch.
When we think of what to write, we're almost always focused on the big things: How we survived an illness, got over a grief, conquered a fear, healed from a loss--or how we failed to do those things. How our fictional characters changed someone's life, found happiness, or saved the world from Lord Voldemort. This is exactly as it should be. The big, universal questions are the stuff of powerful writing. Who are we? What are we? How do we know the difference between right and wrong? How can we find and keep love? How can we find meaning?
But if the major challenges of life are the fabric of our writing, the small tensions are the embroidery: They are what give our work texture and color. And they are indispensible additions to the larger, overarching stories we tell.
Try this: spend at least a week keeping a journal of small moments of tension. Train yourself to become aware of them and jot them down when you experience them or witness them in others. Then work on creating scenes around those moments. What gave rise to the miscommunication or discomfort? How did you and others feels when it happened? What do people's reactions to the small moments tell us about them?
And whenever you are writing either fiction or creative nonfiction, remember those small moments of tension. Don't forget how much they can enrich the larger stories you are telling.
To read more about my travels in Italy and other posts on writing and spirituality, go the the Writing as a Sacred Path Blog.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...