Writing as a butterfly net…

Vita Sackville-West's writing desk in Sissinghurst Tower

Vita Sackville-West's writing desk in Sissinghurst Tower

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?  For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.  That is where the writer scores over his fellows:  he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.  ~Vita Sackville-West

Some writers have tricks for getting themselves into the ‘mood’ to write – like leaving yesterday’s work mid-sentence, so at least there’s a few words to begin with. I do that myself, and I start every new writing day by reading over what I wrote the day before, editing, adding and erasing until, without realizing it, I’m past the point at which I stopped the day before.

But I think preparing  to write is something a writer must do at all times, not merely when approaching the desk.  The challenge is a constant one, not restricted to the moment when fingers meet keyboard. Being a writer is, for me at least, a state of mind, a way of looking at the world, a practice if you will. And it’s about more than writing.  It’s a way of experiencing the world and making meaning of it.

In January, 2010  I’ll be teaching a course on “Creating Character Emotion” as part of my gig as Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church, Princeton.  Most emerging writers think writing sentences such as, “Amy was gleeful!” or “Bob despaired” constitutes writing emotion, but such writing does little to actually create the desired emotion in the reader, which is what a writer tries to do.

When I sent my friend Cliff Moore, Publisher of the Montgomery News, a press release about the upcoming course, he wrote back and said, “I just use emoticons.”  Snort.  I love Cliff.  He obviously meant this as a joke, but I’ve read some prose that might have been improved by emoticons.

As writers, one of our jobs, and one of the gifts of the profession, is to spend time observing and considering our own emotional states, and those of others.  We need to understand emotion, because we are trying to produce in our readers the very emotions our characters experience.  That’s how readers become part of the waking dream that is reading: by experiencing the emotions, not by thinking about them.  Thus, we cannot take shortcuts like unsatisfactory declarative sentences such as, “He was confused.  She was angry.  Oh, how happy she felt.”  Rather, we must examine emotions, understand how they work and how they manifest themselves in our bodies, our responses, our minds, so that we can reproduce them.

We must become, in short, aware – “clapping the net over the butterfly of the moment” as Sackville-West said.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (author of "Lolita") with his net.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (author of "Lolita") with his net.

Take note the next time someone near you is furious – what do they look like?  What color is her skin?  How do his eyes look – do they narrow or widen?  What does he do with his hands?  What does she do with her lips?  Does her speech patterns change, becoming either more staccato, or more rambling than usual?  In other words, how do you know he or she is furious?  What’s the ‘tell,’ as gamblers and con men call it, the involuntary gesture or expression that reveals what’s going on behind the masks we all try and wear?  Capture that, and learn to describe it properly, without cliche, and you’ll be on your way as a writer.

Take note the next time you’re feeling lonely, for example, or filled with regret, or embarrassed.  What’s happening inside you?  What physical sensations are occurring?  Look at yourself in the mirror?  What do you see?

Start now… try this exercise — write a paragraph – 3rd person (he/she) –  describing someone you know in such a way that the reader will know what the person is feeling.  Don’t name the emotion, and don’t use dialogue. Stay with what you can observe at a distance. Stay moment-to-moment, showing the reader gestures and ticks, micro-expressions, fidgets,

Now, try the same exercise, this time in the 1st person (I), and use some thoughts and internal physical responses along with the gestures, etc.  Perhaps a brief memory-flash, or a quick projection into the future?

Finally, rather than simply naming an emotion like loneliness, what might symbolize it? Consider the multiple Baggies in this example:

At the movie – DEATH BY NUMBER – she bought strands of red licorice to tug and chew.  She took a seat off to one side in the theatre.  She felt strangely self-conscious sitting alone, and hoped for the place to darken fast.  When it did, and the coming attractions came on ,she reached inside her purse for her glasses.  They were in a Baggie.  Her Kleenex was also in a Baggie.  So were her pen and her aspirin and her mints.  Everything was in Baggies.  This was what she’d become:  a woman alone at the movies with everything in Baggies.

–           Lorrie Moore, YOU’RE UGLY, TOO (Granta Book of the American Short Story)

Okay, it’s true, Moore does say the character “felt strangely self-conscious sitting alone.” I would suggest that’s almost permissible since the emotion contained in the sub-text (what’s not said) is loneliness rather than self-consciousness..  Still, a gesture rather than the declarative might have made the passage even stronger, or it might even have been removed, leaving only the desire for “the place to darken fast.”  That implies self-consciousness perfectly, as does the specifically chosen seat off to one side. We get the idea, Moore needn’t have told us. (One of the nice bits of this passage, by the way, is that the character’s self-awareness and the humor regarding the Baggie image help avoid a feeling of self-pity.)

When you’ve practiced these kinds of observations for a while I think you’ll discover one of the other gifts of living your life as a writer — increased empathy.

An example:  I knew a woman who had a mental illness.  As a result of that illness, she was often horribly cruel, blurting out things designed to cut deeply enough to leave scars.  Then, one day, when I was trying to writer about her, I remembered a gesture she frequently made:  after she’d said something that brought tears to my eyes, she gave an infinitesimal shake of her head and pressed her lips together.  I was just a child when I first saw those gestures, but as an adult writer, I recalled them, and considered them.  In a flash I understood that this woman, this poor woman, never wanted to say the things she’d said.  She wanted, I suspect, to be a different person entirely, a person free from the hideous isolation of her illness.  She raged, albeit silently, as much against herself as anyone else.  And in that moment I was filled with enormous compassion for her, and was able to write about her in a way that made her not only interesting to others, but also sympathetic.  (The character is Margaret, in The Stubborn Season.).

Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning:  I wanted to know what I was going to say.  ~Sharon O’Brien

That wonderful process of discovery that O’Brien refers to makes the world, and our place in it, a far more interesting and meaningful place.  Our focus becomes more outward, paradoxically enough.  We use writing as a way of clapping our nets over one moment after another, and take the time to examine them, to honor them with our attention.

Keep writing!

Copyright 2009 Lauren B. Davis For permissions: laurenbdavis.iCopyright.com


  1. lucky 8 on December 7, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Dear Lauren, thanks for another inspiring essay. I will be much more attentive to behavior of people I intereact with, including those I observe from a distance. My butterfly net is ready!!

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