One very vivid memory I have from when I was five years old is from kindergarten. During recess in the front yard of the church which sponsored our kindergarten, a little girl and I ran around in our sock feet. We had taken off our shoes for some reason. When it was time to go in, she slipped her shoes on and ran inside. And I stared at my shoes. The laces were untied, and I didn’t know how to retie them.
Her name was Joy. My name felt more like terrified. We weren’t supposed to remove our shoes, even in the classroom.
How do I remember this? I don’t know, but I know it’s important for writing.
In On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, Ann Kroeker (co-author with Charity Craig) gives some advice courtesy of another writer, Dorothea Braude, in how to engage memory: “Set aside a short period each day: when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye,’ the state of wide-eyed interest you have when you were five years old.”
Ann, like the rest of us on the planet, has to do more than simply sitting and thinking to recapture that “innocence of eye.” She has to write her thoughts and observations down, using whatever is closest at hand – a journal, a Word document, phone or tablet apps, or whatever else is handy (I’ve been known to write thoughts on grocery lists).
I carry a journal with me just about everywhere I go, including business meetings, church worship services, and sometimes even the gym. In the one I’m carrying now (its predecessors safely stored on a bookshelf above my computer), you might find rough drafts of poems, quotes (like the one by Dorothea Braude cited above), my notes from a poetry reading with Billy Collins, sermon notes, and odd facts like “During August 1914, the Times of London received more than 100 poetry submissions about the war every day.”
When my wife and I went to Amsterdam and Paris for a belated 25th wedding anniversary trip, I carried a travel journal with me, dutifully recording each day where we went, what we saw, where we ate, and what we bought. It was not only helpful for correcting faulty memories later, it was also useful for helping to keep track of expenses and anything that might have to be declared for Customs.
I did the same thing these past six years for our trips to England. Except these travel journals are slightly different. In addition to places visited and places we ate, they also include drafts of poems written while on a train to Oxford, notations from ads on the tube in London, a few comments about Salisbury Cathedral, observations from a walk in St. James Park, street names and directions for my Dancing Priestnovels, and any number of things I noticed and didn’t want to forget.
Traveling is helpful for writing because you’re seeing the unfamiliar and the new. You’re looking at something with new eyes – those “eyes of innocence.” I’ve actually written the first draft of a novel because I looked at something familiar – an old apartment complex – with a completely new eye.
Like I said, I don’t know how this works, but for writers, it’s critical.
Photograph by Peter Hershey via Unsplash. Used with permission.