My grandma, or granny as I called her, made me lavender bags when I was growing up—beautiful cotton sachets tied with ribbon or lace and filled with lavender harvested from her garden. I used to tuck them in my clothes drawers and the fragrance would remind me of her in the morning.
Garden is one of the British English words I cling to steadfastly. I’ve even rubbed off on my all-American granddaughter who loves to play in my ‘garden’, even though I conceded the vegetable patch to the deer a few years ago. For me, the word “yard” is rather barren, with connotations of concrete from a shipyard or metal from a junk yard. It doesn’t capture the romance, the feeling of peace that comes over me when I watch bees gathering, butterflies exalting, flowers exuding full color.
My garden falls short of the true English haven my mum creates year after year, but it brings me joy, it gives me a sense of renewal and rejuvenation. I love to unwind with my camera, and explore the flower beds or the woods for images and patterns that only nature has the imagination to create. An instant slow-down moment. It’s the details that amaze me the most, the secrets you can’t know unless you stop for a closer look.
I planted lavender a few years ago. It’s given me a beautiful crop already, with a second about ready to pick. Soon, it will be dry and I’ll find some pretty cotton to make lavender bags. I think I’ll do them in my granddaughter’s favorite color, maybe she’ll tuck some away in her clothes drawers like I did.
A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of going on a boat trip on Lake Erie. The colors were stunning—a patriotic parasailor, the blues of water and sky, colored rides at Cedar Point, but it was the lovely breeze on my face that fully grounded me into the moment.
There’s something about using more than one sense at a time, it’s a quicker, firmer way to slow things down and experience the present, which I talk about in Going Slow. And I’m continuing my explorations of senses in my new book.
The breeze made me think about the importance of details in a story, how they can add a richness that helps the reader to experience what the character is experiencing. (See the irony, from mindfulness to daydreaming?) I looked for words to describe this breeze so I could put it in my story. Only the character I’m developing right now is blind, and though people presume her life is dull, she actually has a better vision than most of what’s happening, and a pleasant breeze would add nothing to her story. Besides, she felt the breeze on her cheeks sounds a bit cliché, and who wants to read cliché? Which doesn’t seem fair because it really was a pleasant breeze.
You might have noticed, I’m still stubbornly stuck on the breeze. It was vivid, like one of those Old Man Winter faces you see on maps, only with spearmint fresh breath. Even if it doesn’t work for my blind woman, I can store it in my notebook for future use, or use it to create an entirely new character.
life inspires fiction
Like real life, a fictional character has a unique perspective. A unique set of experiences, physical abilities, even age will make her react a particular way. We can delve deep here to develop meaningful and diverse characters.
How about a fisherman who goes out on the lake every day? The wind might become so familiar it becomes invisible to him. But what if he starts every morning “listening” with his cheeks to feel the power of the wind, and the direction it’s coming from, like a personal weather forecast for the day?
What if my character has been a prisoner, incarcerated in a dank, sun-less cell. This his first time out—or his hundredth, and he’ll never take a breeze for granted again. Or a scientist who’d been stationed in Antarctica for six months, it would feel blissfully gentle. A women who survived a hurricane, but lost a loved one—it might feel like cruel mockery.
A multitude of experiences and factors defines how we as people and by extension fictional characters experience the world. Education, social class, special interests and the work we do.
fiction inspires life
Of course, sometimes it’s just a case of being 4 years old, or simply loving the color blue. But use details, portray a character in depth, and whether your reader loves or detests your character, they’ll know them so well they feel real. And it’s not all a one-way street. Just as real life can enhance our writing, fiction can enhance our experience of the real world, characters can open our eyes to a new perception of the world. And if fiction can broaden our perspective, it can foster understanding.
Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I challenge you to try out life through someone else’s eyes. Imagine you’ve just been released from unlawful imprisonment halfway across the world and take a walk through town, seeing it for the first time after believing you would never see it again. Imagine being marooned on an island eating raw roots and sea urchins for the past six months, and eat your dinner as though it’s your first meal back in civilization.
Does it alter your perception of the familiar? Does your imagination ground you in the present, and gift you a moment of mindfulness? Did you get an idea for a story?
Please share in the comments. Let’s start a conversation, I’d love to hear what happened.
As leaves unfurl, buds swell, tulips stand tall in full regalia, later up here in the hills than the lowlands, I’m reminded how time continues to march forward, whether we’re ready or not. This perpetual rhythm is something that inspires Pietro in my book, From Ashes The Song, leading him to the realization that if nature can recover from the frozen lifelessness of winter, so Assunta can recover from her grief.
The story is inspired by the true story of two Italian immigrants, Pietro and Assunta, as told to me by their daughter, Irene Smylnycky.
Sadly, Irene passed away last week. Until a few short weeks ago, she lived independently at 90 years old, with all her faculties. The day she suffered a stroke she’d intended to make perogies for the annual Easter feast she cooked for her family, because family was the most important thing in her life.
Gathering everyone around the table meant more to her than anything else, nourishing them was a way to express her love. But then she found a multitude of ways to make the people in her life feel important. I, too, was a beneficiary on our visits, which always ended with tea and whatever cake she’d made that week, and on our trip to Italy in 2009 to trace a world her parents had left behind a hundred years earlier.
Irene voiced her gratitude every day. And she knew how to touch the lives of the people around her just as her parents did. Her father, Pietro, did it through his music, her mother, Assunta, through her joy of being with others.
I will miss her greatly. And I will continue to be inspired by her example. I will be eternally grateful for her friendship, for her stories, and for the song. Rest in peace, my dear friend, Irene.
I watch the hands that tell you—I cannot hold you
you’ll let none stop you until the end.
I’m fond of you and a half,
love it when you’re on my side
though I’d rather never serve you.
Some days I can’t help but waste you beat you kill you,
other days I gain you keep you
give or take you fix or buy you.
In the end you will tell.
There is a you for everything
yet you outsmart the likes of Aristotle, Homer,
I get stuck in you
I would be frozen without you.
You measure my heartbeat
like you measure the earth and stars
turning turning turning.
You pass, you slip more into place
your perpetual linear
marching marching marching.
Your name was spoken before mine
when I was born.
Why is it, then,
I forget you?
Let you slip by, unnoticed
fleeting toward the inevitable
day I run out
Seeing a play is a lovely way to break routine, fitting nicely into my quest to slow down. When we were kids, mum would take us to the theatre in London (allow me the indulgence of the British spelling), to see plays by my granny’s favorite writer, Agatha Christie. I’ve loved plays ever since, so I was delighted when my daughter took me for an early birthday treat to see Peribanyez, performed by Quantum Theater (American spelling, I’ll concede) in Mellon Park, Pittsburgh.
Everyone seems to be noticing that life is racing faster than ever. It makes me wonder whether I was onto something with the first book I was going to write. In it, a circle of gnome-like men in the heavens, manipulated the human race like an intricate yet global game, causing all the crazy things that happen in this world, people mere pawns. Perhaps it wasn’t fiction, perhaps the truth Continue reading Going slow→