One day a while ago, I was out with my family for a walk in the neighborhood. As we returned home, I noticed a speed limit sign in the parkway in front of our house.
“Did they just install that sign?”
My family looked at me, bemused, thinking I was joking, but after a few awkward seconds, they could tell I was serious. My son Luke shook his head at me.
“Dad, that sign has always been there.”
“Since we moved in, okay?”
This wasn’t a case of early onset dementia, but rather the fact that I had seen the sign… but never really SEEN it. Literally, I had pushed a lawn mower around the sign perhaps a hundred times. I used a weed whacker to trim the grass at its base another hundred times. But for some unfathomable reason at the end of that family walk, when I noticed it there, it was the very first time I had SEEN it.
The irony is every school year, I tell my college students in no uncertain terms they should turn off their cell phones at least 30 minutes each day and simply look around. Listen. Connect with the world. Be mindful of what is happening around you. Of all people, writers have to feed off that thing we know as Life. And here I am… a guy who had somehow never SEEN a speed sign he’d passed by countless times.
This is especially painful because of my theological background because right there in Gospel of Mark 8:18 are these words: “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?”
Sometimes in my case, evidently not!
Seeing. Hearing. Being here now. Living in the present. I am reminded of the importance of these fundamental aspects of a writer’s life because of an interview I conducted with Alan Roth whose fine screenplay “Jersey City Story” won one of five 2013 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships. In the interview, Roth recounted a specific personal incident involving his godson and a professional basketball player which had become the inspiration for the script. He told me as he thought about what had transpired — what he had seen, what he had heard — that it played out like a movie scene.
“In the days afterward, the scene kept playing in my mind. It came to me as a movie, I don’t know why, but it did.”
Here’s the thing: Up to that point, Roth had written short stories. He’d written a novel. He’d written jokes. He’d written comedy sketches.
BUT HE’D NEVER WRITTEN A SCREENPLAY!
He felt compelled to write that scene. Then he thought of another scene. And another. Soon without any formal training at all, he was writing a screenplay.
Alan experienced a quiet moment between a boy and a sport star… and because he was paying attention, it completely changed his life.
When Alan told me this anecdote, I responded with this:
Me: Big lesson there. Keep your eyes and ears open… because there are stories all around us.
Alan: There are… if we’re open to them.
So two broad approaches to the creative life.
There is the way of the dude who can pass by a speed limit sign a gazillion times and somehow not really SEE it.
Or there is the way of the person who is so in tune with life and the world around him, that what he experiences in a moment of human kindness inspires him to write an award-winning screenplay that transforms his life.
Hopefully you have the eyes to see and ears to hear which approach is the preferable one!
You can read my interview with Alan Roth here.
Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.
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