Use your words: Why it helps to write things down

Use your words: Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia

I remember the place – Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain – but how I felt at the time or other details? All a blur. I should have used my words…

Use your words

When our sons were little, they’d reach a point of either frustration or excitement where they couldn’t convey their intent. Gestures, crying, repeating the same undecipherable jumble always resulted in our same, calming response: “Use your words.”

Now that I’m older, I have to remind myself of that advice. When traveling to a new place that makes me so giddy with excitement to see more, I can easily put the arm-waving, up-and-down jumping, glee squeaking gyrations of my children to shame. At least on the inside. I do try and retain some external decorum. Try.

But then, after the initial wave of enthusiasm passes and especially later when I attempt to recount the wonder of a place to others, I hit a snag. I can remember the emotions and some of the details, but I can’t always connect the two in ways that make sense to others.

Why? Because I didn’t use my words. I didn’t write down the details of both the place and my response to it right away. As a result, that moment is gone and the specifics that made it so special are, at least partially, lost.

Write it down right away

Earlier, we looked at how details can make your writing more interesting and the free guide, Come Closer: A Novelist’s Approach to Capturing Details. But how and even when you capture those details matters in your ability to use them well later.

The prolific travel writer Tim Cahill addresses this in his story, “The Place I’ll Never Forget” found in the collection An Innocent Abroad edited by Don George. In trying to recount experiences later he notes:

“…it occurred to me that the stories I told would benefit from more detail. I couldn’t just experience something and expect to have it etched indelibly into my memory. I had to give names to the colors and odors and feel of things. I had to assess my own feelings, which gave emotion to the landscape. And I needed to do it on the spot because travel often doesn’t allow you to backtrack.”

That’s vital for writers and artists to remember: If we don’t capture the details and our emotional response to them while we’re right there, we’re rarely given a second chance. Time and memory quickly distort our recollections of the moment.

When it comes to using your words, Cahill notes:

“Some people are certain they can recall such physical and emotional experiences through their photographs. I can’t argue the point, though feeling through a lens is a rare talent and one I don’t possess. I need to put words to sensations and emotions to own them forever. Whenever I can’t figure something out and take a photograph rather than a note, I know I’m losing the scene forever.”

Use your words to capture what lies beneath the surface

I love photography. But I’m finding that like Cahill, sometimes a photograph can’t capture what he refers to as the “interior landscape,” our internal response to the external scene. Taking notes as soon as we can after the experience allows us to record both what we see and feel. We begin to find meaning in the experience right there because we’re processing it in real time.

I still tend to rush into and out of a scene, clicking away and hoping I can later reconstruct through images what occurred there. But increasingly, I’m trying to pause amidst the excitement of the place and at least scribble down or record verbally my reaction to it. Images matter and are a great resource for reviewing later for details. But if you want to capture those details and the meaning behind them, do what we told our kids.

Use your words.

 

How to make your writing more interesting and memorable

How to make your writing more interesting: Image of The Gatteaux Family by Ingres

The Gatteaux Family by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

Want to make your writing or your art more interesting? Want it to stand out and be remembered better? Want readers to be able to visualize with great clarity what you’re writing about?

Add details.

There it is. Details. That’s the big secret, or at least one of them for crafting more interesting fiction and non-fiction and adding layers to your art.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent book, The Sense of Style, which sentence can you mentally picture (and thus likely retain) better:

“The set fell on the floor” or “The ivory chess set fell on the floor”?

Only two words differentiate the two sentences, yet that detail makes the second sentence more concrete. You can picture the ivory chess set better.

The ways in which you present details are as diverse as the types of writing you might do. But here are two considerations.

First, for fiction, use details to add depth and clarity to your descriptions. “It was a dark and moonless night” doesn’t make you feel the night as well as, “The darkness oppressed her, like the blackness of a cave, complete and unyielding.”

For non-fiction, wherever possible, use examples (as I just did above). Examples offer details while also providing an analogy the reader can relate to.

Details are your friend. But how do you go about making their acquaintance? You can rely on your imagination. But your imagination will grow if you learn to collect details and stockpile them for later.

Travel helps us in this regard. When we go out into the world with our eyes open and our notebooks or cameras or sketchpads at hand, we can see and then capture details we’d otherwise miss. We then bring back these small treasures to our studios for use in our work. Anyone can do this, but it helps to know some shortcuts and techniques. And where might one find such helpful tips?

I just completed a new paper, just for you, my guide to capturing and collecting details. It’s a free resource here if you’ve signed up on the site. I call it Come Closer: The Novelist’s Approach to Collecting Details because the basic concept came from an interview with a novelist I read many years ago. He described traveling to a city, for example, where a scene for his next book would take place. But instead of writing all the details about the whole city, he would find one interesting street corner and then document that thoroughly. He’d then have some great details he could throw into his descriptions that provided authenticity and made the scene more compelling.

I liken it to an Ingres drawing. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the 19th century French painter, is considered one of history’s finest draftsman. His drawings, such as the one above, are exquisite, but what I appreciate is his isolated use of extreme detail. In the above image, the background is a mere suggestion. Even the clothing is rendered with the minimal lines needed to convey meaning. But look at the faces. They are meticulously drawn. Ingres used details where they mattered and didn’t waste the effort in areas where they don’t. And so should we.

If you want to make your writing more interesting, check out the guide to capturing details. The beauty of it is that you’ll learn tips and techniques that will not only make you a better writer or artist, they’ll improve how you travel as well.

 

Hair fairies and how it works

Chemo Gifts - Cancer is a WordOn Thursday evening, some friends of mine were asking about Chemo Gifts and how this whole thing works. They wondered how they could be more involved. I told them of having distributed most of the bags of encouraging quotes and the cotton gloves to the chemo treatment centers where my wife had been.

When it came to how they could help, I mentioned that life has a way of producing opportunities. I’ve had some friends over the last month who have friends of theirs or family members with cancer. And so I reach out and provide them with these Chemo Gifts as well. I said I’d continue to do that as needs arise but we all agreed we’d be on the lookout for other ways we could each use our own interests and talents to help those around us.

Then, two days later, out of the blue I get this email from an old college friend of mine, Carole:

“Well, I launched a kickstarter this week to help fund a project that is near and dear to my heart.  I left teaching to care for a former little preschool student of mine that got diagnosed with leukemia.  As we stepped onto this journey together,  her single mom wondered what was out there to help make so much of the scary business of getting her daughter Eva healthy again a little less scary.  She came up empty handed.  She wanted a story about dealing with hair loss and couldn’t find one.  So, I wrote one.  Now we have a brilliant illustrator burning the midnight oil to finish the illustrations.  That is what the kickstarter is for.  If we go over our goal, we can print the first run of this story and hand them to the kids affected by cancer treatment for free.  It is our promise to give these to families at no cost ever to them.”

Here’s the Kickstarter link if you’d like to help out. Even if you don’t want to donate, check out the video about Carole’s story regarding Eva and the hair fairies:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/738775374/the-legend-of-the-hair-fairies

The wonder of this is not just the timing, but how Carole is doing exactly what we were discussing: using her creative abilities to do something meaningful and useful for someone else.

Losing hair due to chemo seems, if you haven’t been through it, like a minor issue. After all, you’re battling for your life. Why worry about superficials like your hair? Except it isn’t just superficial. Your hair is part of you. Part of your identity. And to have it gone almost overnight can be devastating. Plus it signals to the world that you have cancer: It’s the first visual cue to others of your disease. And for both adults and little kids losing your hair can be scary, like an amputation, a part of yourself now detached.

We can explain the scientific reasons for losing your hair to chemo, but more comforting — more helpful — is the power of story. That’s what Carole has done. And as a result of her using a passion for writing for a little girl in need, she not only is touching the lives of Eva and her mother, but all the others who are now involved in this project.

That’s how it works.

 

How to travel like a beginner – Part 2

Travel like a beginner: Airline seats

Even veteran flyers can find wonders in the often cramped space of an airline seat

How to travel like a beginner…or maybe not

This past week, I attempted to travel like a beginner, a novice unfamiliar with words like bulkhead, elite line or overhead bin.

I tried to view air travel as a newbie.

I failed.

Why it’s hard to travel like a beginner

I think I was doomed before I ever threw my carryon into the trunk of my car. While I laud the ideal of “beginner’s mind” and the underlying desire to experience afresh all the novelty of the first time, I believe I went about it the wrong way. What I found is that you cannot unknow what you know.

I tried to picture how a less experienced version of me would have reacted to travel. But instead of a deeper appreciation for the now and a deeper awareness of the experience as I had it, I spent more time in my imagination, filtering and speculating. Better would have been to concentrate on simply noticing more.

Boo hoo for me and my experiment to travel like a beginner. However, my efforts helped remind me of a few insights about air travel both good and bad that may be helpful to you as well. Let’s start with the challenges.

The hard part

  •  Airplane travel is a pain in the rear. Literally and figuratively. With newer seats being narrower and older seats having virtually no bottom cushion left, sitting for six hours leaves certain areas of one’s anatomy feeling like they’ve been dry iced. And then there’s the issue of proximity. Where else in our modern lives do we let complete strangers into our personal space for hours? Not seconds in a cramped elevator, or minutes on a crowded bus or subway car. Hours. As the shuttle driver kindly informed me on the ride to the airport, “You’d be amazed how many people never shower before getting on a plane. I had a guy here last week that made the shuttle bus wait so he could get one last toke on his joint (it’s legal here in Washington). I would not like to have sat wedged in next to him on a long flight.” And yet we do.
  • The airlines seem intent on making travel harder for us. Check out this insightful article on how the airlines’ make you suffer and see if it doesn’t resonate.
  •  Solo travel is better for noticing. On the first of many flights last week, I traveled with colleagues. We had some wonderful conversations. But my ability to be present and pay attention to the experience of travel crashed. You can’t pay attention to your surrounding and your conversation at the same time. Or at least I couldn’t.

Now on to the positives.

The good part

  •  Airplanes gets me where I want to go. Pretty obvious, but important. As my friend Al has told me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Me too. But we forget that 100 years ago the same trip that takes us five hours would have taken five days and two hundred years ago, five months or more.
  • I can’t recreate a first-time thrill, but I can relive it. The few times I was able to travel like a beginner — but only with conscious effort — were on takeoff and landing. Try it. Next time the wheels leave or touch the runway, remind yourself of how amazing it is, what you feel in your stomach and what a marvel for something as big and heavy as a plane to fly.
  • I get to meet some wonderful people. That forced intimacy makes conversations easier. I can participate in the life of a stranger in ways I never would in other settings. And while most chats are superficial, some of those conversations can be life-changing.
  • I realize how entitled I am. The hassle of travel makes me aware of how much I take space and “my rights” for granted. Discomfort can be revealing.
  • I find space to reflect and create. I intentionally do NOT use wifi on a plane unless in a business “emergency” (determined by me, not by others). Airline cabins are one of the few locations you can’t be called or, without wifi, bothered. How many places do we have left for quiet reflection and concentration? When I see my airline seat as a sanctuary—albeit a very crammed one — it changes how I view my entire trip.

What might change your view of travel? Try being present to the experience of it. You too may find more to air travel than just getting to your destination. Just be aware about those seat cushions…

 

How to travel like a beginner…even if you’re not one – Part 1

Latte: How to travel like a beginner

The next time you eat or drink something familiar, try and imagine what it would be like doing so for the first time.

I’m about to board an airplane for the first time in almost four months. I haven’t gone for this long being grounded in over four years.

At first, I thought I would go stir crazy or miss airline travel. That never happened. Perhaps it is because I look to travel for novelty and adventure and day-to-day life has kindly been supplying more of both than I either anticipated or, in some cases, relished. But in less than 48 hours, I will once again be plane-bound.

This gives me an opportunity — a boost really — to try something I’ve been wanting to share with you for some time. The concept of “beginner’s mind” or Shoshin in Japanese derives from Zen Buddhism and is often associated with the book by Shunryu Suzuki where he states the famous line, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But “beginner’s mind,” like the quote itself, extends far beyond it’s Zen roots and can be applicable to all of us today.

At its heart is the idea of approaching anything, particularly a subject or skill which you have already mastered, with the openness, excitement and receptivity of a beginner. Beginner’s mind is less about memory — remembering back to your first experience with something — and more about confronting that now familiar experience as if it were completely new to you.

You can try this with any familiar object or experience. Take, for instance the act of tasting your favorite food or drink. Let’s say it’s a cup of coffee. The next time you sip a cup of coffee, consciously engage the experience. What are you really tasting? What is it like? Do you taste the bitterness (assuming you haven’t overloaded the drink with sweeteners)? Can you recall how you first reacted to that bitter taste? It likely wasn’t pleasant. So can you now consciously try and imagine what this sip would be like if you’d never tasted coffee before? Feel the liquid warmth. Be aware of how you swallow. Try to describe the aroma to yourself.

You may be wary of the Zen roots or think the whole notion is New Agey, silly or too esoteric. But try it. Because just the act of trying it will reveal how much we have lost our ability to experience the wonder that daily surrounds us. We have become so familiar with the marvels of technology and of nature that we blithely march through our days unaware of all the experiences that would blow our minds if we encountered them all in one day as a complete beginner.

I plan to do my best to approach air travel like a beginner this week. Likely, work pressures and habits will kick in and the best intentions will yield few results. But who knows?

To be continued…

Food tour of Seattle’s International District

Chinatown on a food tour of Seattle's International District

Hing Hay Park was one of our last stops on the food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown

We started our food tour of Seattle’s International District and Chinatown a few weeks ago with, naturally, food.

Cream puffs to be exact.

Our tour, led by Taylor Hoang and assisted by Rayleen Nguyen both of Pho Cyclo Cafe, departed from the Huong Binh Restaurant in Little Saigon. This Vietnamese dining place is run by Taylor’s mom and is, as we’d soon find out, amazingly good. First stop from there: Saigon’s Bakery and Bubble Tea where we tasted scrumptious cream puffs; light and not too sweet.

Cream puff's on food tour of Seattle's International Disrtict

The best cream puffs I’ve ever had are found in Little Saigon on this food tour of Seattle’s International District

I think some of our fellow guests on the 12-person food tour of Seattle’s International District could have gladly just spent the rest of the day there in cream puff heaven. But onward we pressed.

Time to go shopping on the food tour of Seattle’s International District

From there we visited Lam Seafood on King Street near 12th. If you live in the Seattle area and you want fresh produce or seafood, come here.

Indian Bittermelon on the food tour of Seattle's International District

Indian Bittermelon was just one of many fruits and vegetables we don’t see too often at our local grocery store

The prices are in many cases half to a third of what they are in the grocery stores and the selection, at least for Asian foods, is unbeatable.

Taylor explaining Caro on our food tour of Seattle's International District

Here’s Taylor our guide explaining how to look for and prepare caro root at Lam Seafood

We came back later on our own to shop and stock up on sauces, as well as buy from a huge selection of mushrooms, vegetables and fresh fish.

Fish on display at Lam Seafood on food tour of Seattle's International District

At Lam Seafood, you just point to the fish you want and then point to a sign that tells them how you want it prepared.  Compare the prices here with where you normally get your seafood…

Next stop, Thanh Son Tofu. Even if you don’t like tofu, you should check out the very affordable sub sandwiches and other treats they have in this brand new facility. And if you do like tofu or soy milk, well, this is your cream puff of a place…

Sesame balls on food tour of Seattle's International District

These sesame balls are just some of the tasty goodies you’ll find at Thanh Son Tofu even if you don’t like tofu

Back to the Huong Binh Restaurant for a wonderful soup of wontons, pork, shrimp, squid and quail eggs along with celery leaves, chive and fried shallots in a pork broth. That alone could have been lunch enough, but then came the “main course:” Rice noodles, grilled pork, pork meatball and grilled shrimp garnished with lettuce, peanuts, herbs, onions and a delectable sauce. Oh, and cookies for desert. Delighted and satisfied, our food tour of Seattle’s International District could have ended there.

Huong Binh Lunch on food tour of Seattle's International District

Our first course for lunch at Huong Binh. Delicious.

But wait (as they say in infomercials), there’s more on this food tour of Seattle’s International District!

We headed from lunch down to Chinatown where we tasted dim sum, stuffed buns, barbecued pork and coconut-infused rolls. We learned of other places to shop, restaurants to try and gift items to purchase. By the time we finished, we were full. OK, more than full. Stuffed. And not just of food.

We learned so much that day from Taylor that we’d never have uncovered on our own, at least not without considerable time and effort. It reminds me that sometimes a guide can make all the difference in your experience of a place.

Ten Benefits of Using a Guide

In fact, here are ten benefits a guide provides in a new place (or at least did in this situation):

  1. They make you aware of places you’d never find on your own
  2. They introduce you to new people
  3. They introduce you to new food types and sources of ingredients or new products and even ideas
  4. They show you how to use the things (ingredients in this case) you find there that may be unique to that place.
  5. They keep you from getting lost
  6. They vet the good from the bad and show you the best
  7. They make you feel like an insider or like you belong there or have a right to be there
  8. They create a sense of community, with your other group members on the tour and with the people you meet along the way
  9. They increase the number of customers and business for mom and pop stores: You know where your money is going and that it is a good deal. (Unfortunately, with some guides overseas, you are channeled to expensive tourist traps where the guide gets a kickback. Here, the guide does it out of a sense of community and desire to share what is good.)
  10. They show you how to do this yourself next time on your own
King's Barbeque House on food tour of Seattle's International District

Here Taylor explains the various types of roasted meat you can get at King’s Barbeque House on 6th Ave.

And in this case, they also give you a little goody bag with containers for all the food you can’t possibly eat at the time, as well as a coffee press that Taylor showed us how to use at the end of the tour.

This food tour of Seattle’s International District was a wonderful experience that revealed a hidden world in our own neighborhood. It also showed how valuable a guide can be to any place that seems foreign to you…even ones so close to home.