Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Coffee Laced with Plant Food and Other Writing Hazards

The other morning, I was stumbling around the kitchen with my head wrapped around a plot twist that needed unraveling, as I made a pot of coffee. It wasn’t until water was already dripping through the filter that I realized I’d just used the jug with “tap water” scrawled on its side--the one I use to water my plants. Needless to say, I had to throw it all out.  It didn’t make me feel any better to know the water I’d been sipping since the previous night came from the same jug.  I don’t know if plant food is harmful to humans, but I'll let you know if I suddenly have the nagging urge to dig my toes in the sand and follow the sun across the sky.

Photo by Dan Holm
This isn’t the first time my breakfast has suffered because of my inattention.  While busy contemplating a character motivation, I once plopped a raw egg into my coffee mug instead of the frying pan.  I won’t even mention the time I stuck my cell phone in the refrigerator or drove three exits past my destination before I noticed. 
I’ve done all kinds of crazy things while my head was busy someplace else.  It’s one of the hazards of being a writer.  I spend a lot of time in my head and for much of the time, that's exactly where I want to be. 



When I’m in my head, I might be exploring worlds that never existed, or walking beside a character who's about to take the wrong path or puzzling about the best way to describe an oak tree’s gentle sway or the color of the sky after a storm.  No matter that I’m supposed to be vacuuming, or washing the car or chatting with friends at a dinner party, I can’t resist the temptation to spin tales or mull over possibilities.  No matter how much it annoys my family and friends, daydreaming is an unavoidable part my writing process. 

Unfortunately this tendency conflicts with another trait important to writers: paying attention.   



It’s a paradox that we who most want to escape into the space between our synapses, are also the ones who most need to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around us.  Writers need to be observant of details and to bring those details into their writing.  We need to interact with the world and to understand the people who populate it.  Only then can we bring this insight to the page and infuse our made up stories with relevant kernels of truth and authenticity.
We must listen, observe, and drink deep of our lives if our stories are to resonate for the people who read them.  That's all the harder for me since, like so many writers, I'm an introvert. Unlike my more extroverted friends, I'm perfectly happy submerged in the pages of a best-seller or hiding behind walls made up of my own thoughts and musings.  Instead of eating chips and guacamole and trading barbs with friends at a Superbowl party, I’d rather be hunched at my desk tinkering with yet another edit of my Work in Progress.

But somehow, I know a gentle balance must be struck.

‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. 

Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh



Being present is a zen concept.  For writers, it means stepping outside of our heads and taking the time to focus only on what’s in front of us.  It means concentrating on the scenery we pass when we walk in the woods.  It means making the effort to really get to know the people we interact with everyday.  It means striving for an effective balance between being part of the world and just writing about it.  Between truly living a life instead of just daydreaming about one.  

It’s tough for me to do these things, but I know sometimes it’s what I need most.  And it would make preparing breakfast a lot easier too.

Do you find yourself neglecting other facets of your life to focus on writing or reading?  How do you strike the gentle balance and keep yourself present?


  1. Being observant and in the moment is important for writers, but also being in the head space that allows us to concentrate on our writing, is necessary as well. One place we need to be, so we don't commit too many faux pas; the other we need to satisfy our writing souls.

    I get grumpy when they don't balance. But I don't think I've used plant water yet. (Watch for any sprouts popping up)

  2. I totally agree. I need to go be able to disappear into my head space in order to get things done, but it's really difficult because I have a lot of people in my life who want and need my attention.

    Nothing sprouting yet, but I'll keep you posted. : )

    Thanks for your comment!