You’re fretting in traffic, stuck at a light, late for something that matters. Then the sun glints off the car next to you, catching you hard in the eye, and you think of another woman, not necessarily you, but someone you once saw in traffic – or could imagine seeing – her face pinched in worry until the sun hits her eyes. At that moment, her muscles contract, revealing an unexpected, exhausted beauty. You begin to search for the words to capture that, the way it makes you feel sad and hopeful at once. The light changes and you drive on, but you’re not trapped in the car anymore. The traffic doesn’t matter – nothing does, not for now. You’ve sunk deep inside. To the still center where you go to write.
Writers have a still center, a place that can only be accessed internally, where words link with insight, where stillness gives way to transcendence, where we dare to touch on something divine. All artists do. Writing and other arts involve a translation of experience, whether actual or imagined. To accomplish that – for writers, as soon as we attempt to put words to it – we create artistic distance. For example, let’s say you’re awake in the night because you’re hurting, and you feel as if no one cares. Then you think of putting that in a story or poem. Suddenly the hurt is there in your hands like a rough jewel that you want to lift up to the light to see how it reflects. You’ve shifted from yourself as a victim to yourself as a creator of something new.
William Wordsworth spoke of poetry as originating from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” When I first read that, I pictured him sitting on a bench in a peaceful garden (one that someone else must have supplied). Now I think of that as I race through my life, multitasking all over the place: scanning the news as I choke down my breakfast, catching up on emails as I rush down the street, scrolling through Twitter as I pretend to have conversations. Does tranquility even exist anymore?
My answer is that the place to look for it is inside. The world may be going insane, and what we now ask of ourselves in terms of staying current and connected may be a daily threat to our creative lives, but you carry the possibility of reflection inside you at all times. Try to remember that as you speed through your day. Maybe spend half of that rushed breakfast on the news, but the other half on processing it. Maybe walk sometimes without a device and simply think. Maybe set aside a little time every evening to try to capture a few moments that struck you.
As soon as you begin to connect words with experience, I believe a kind of tranquility will find you.