Life is borrowed, but love is forever.
We are architects, attorneys, teachers, librarians, designers, advertisers, journalists.
If I stood upon the written material I produce each year in my business, I imagine I would stand quite tall. It would be an impressive pile; letters, transmittals, memos, facsimiles, proposals, reports, contracts, statements of qualifications, statements of interest. If you are a business person, your pile is probably quite similar to mine.
Lastly, on top of the volumes of written material, I would place my finished manuscript. The binding is labeled simply: “My Book”, and it belongs there on top – above the rest. To see it, you would think it thin compared to the mountain of documents I must draft each year for my livelihood. Nonetheless it would give me a lofty perch on which to stand. Of everything I write, it makes me feel most tall.
There are two lessons in my podium of paper and they are quite simple:
The first is that we must write. Whether it is an essay for school, an application to higher learning, a resume for employment or a transaction of business, we must write, and we must strive to write well.
The second lesson is that we should write. Writing for pleasure is one of the most personal and liberating things we allow ourselves – like creating a painting or sculpture. When we write, we record the pattern of our mind and the rhythm of our heart to paper. In that event, of embossing ourselves to print, we leave our mark. It is ours. It is me.
“My Book” now has a title, but I prefer to leave the binding just as it is.
I check the steel door that divides sanity from me, then surrender to the cold floor. The slab is still tightly sealed, with finality, as if rusted closed from the sweat of a thousand prisoners raining down through the cavern of this massive penitentiary. I will check it again, after I sleep.
‘Hell Hall’ …I think it is called…, is where I sit in solitary, in the belly of this tower of discarded men, a foreboding place cut from rock a dozen lifetimes ago. I have dwelled in this sump of humanity for longer than I can remember; where natural light is only a prayer and oxygen hides within the stench of my own sewage seeping from broken cast iron.
The walls, floor and ceiling that contain me bear the marks that measure the passing of days, months and years. End to end and side to side, the length and width of the stone floor has been worn to a polish by the burden of a hundred shuffling souls; the telling of men buried alive in a masonry tomb and recorded in a simple cross, four steps long and three steps wide.
“What!?” I bark at a noise that is my own and then swat at the air as if it carries an unwanted pest. The angry voice sounds strange to my ears even though I speak aloud often, just to know that it is still me who is here. It is different than the whispers prattling inside my head and confuses me. I sit still and listen for a response that will not come, and there is no other sound. There will not be; there cannot be. I am surprised that I know this.
I bite my arm to feel pain, to test if I am still alive, and I am. I let the muscle relax, what is left of it, and my hand lightly scrapes across a washboard of naked ribs and falls into my hollow lap. There is less of me today—there always is. It doesn’t matter. My body will vanish without knowing the touch of another human being again. I wonder if I am still human.
Decay is all I see, so I close my eyes and invite the vision of the woman from the lost time. She comes to me from somewhere deep inside my skull: white, and soft like linen, with the pretty face that makes me smile, but shadows cloak where her eyes should be and the mouth is just a short line as if drawn with a black pen. I think it is the face of my lover but I cannot be sure. It could be a ghost… I try to recall the taste of her lips, her embrace, her scent, the sound of her laughter, but my senses have no recollection. I can’t even be sure of her name. If there is a sixth sense, it is fear, but I am not afraid of this apparition. I am only afraid of surviving this day—just to endure another day and another after that.
I no longer think of food. I am beyond hunger. What is there to nourish? It arrives when I hear the rattle of steel at my door. Like the Russian dog, I go there to receive it, but never in time to engage my servant. I think it must be a machine, a conveyor of water and stale bread and something wet and crumbly that tastes like clay. But, for some reason, I do think of breathing. Perhaps because the cadence of my breath mocks me like the annoying ticking of a clock, marking time as it moves forward, one click, one breath before the next—but time will not be measured in this place, I will not allow it. This, I also know.
My existence is a contradiction: suspended in cerebral nothingness but gripped within a chamber of hardness—a concrete grave just waiting for my death to arrive. And I? I wait only for my mind to carry me away from this horrible place—this sensory wasteland—if only for a little while.
To be truthful, I do wait for one other thing… for the deep sleep that is not mine to have. And I also often think of God, even more than I think of breathing, and I pray that He will let me soon die in a dream of my own choosing.
How do I tell what time it is when I’m writing?
I don’t mean what time is it as I sit in front of my keyboard staring down at our chicken coup wondering if I need to close the gate for the night. I mean how do I tell time in my writing?
“I find telling time one of the more interesting challenges right up there with finding less boring ways of creating dialogue attribution,” he said.
So what time is it?
I can go the lazy, direct route such as: ‘It was 4:30 a.m.‘ or, a little better, but not by much: ‘It was four-thirty in the morning.‘
It’s much more fun to describe the time in context with the movement of the earth and sun: ‘Sunrise was still two thousand miles away.’ Same number of words but lots more engaging. This, of course, assumes the reader was paying attention in third grade and knows that the earth spins at roughly a thousand miles an hour. It also assumes the reader understands that, in this particular setting and season (assuming I already provided that information), sunrise is about 6:30 a.m. and it is therefore 4:30 a.m. That’s putting a lot of thinking on the reader, but that’s the place where I like to write. I like to get the reader’s brain involved beyond scanning across the words printed on the page. I want to draw in their experience and understanding of the world. I like to give my readers credit for being on top of things.
Okay, the sun is coming up next. How do I paint my scene without having to say, uh, ‘the sun was coming up.‘
‘A minute later Tom could see the abandoned guard tower come into view, at first as a silhouette against the emerging sky and the bright lights of the complex…’
‘She looked out across the grey Chesapeake at the orange-cotton clouds filling the eastern sky and then up at Tom’s approving smile. “This is the most awesome way to wake up ever!” Sure, this way of saying it puts a little more work on the reader, but instead of telling that the sun is coming up, why not show it? If you’ve ever watched a sunrise over open water with some clouds in attendance, the scene would definitely make a connection with you.
Now the sun’s going down…
‘It was almost sundown.’ Simple, straight-forward, boring.
‘The sun was falling low in the sky, casting deep shadows from the buildings across the street.’ Much better. Lot’s of action; stuff is falling and casting all over the place. Bonus: we also know there are buildings across the street instead of a park or a lake, or a junk yard. It could be significant.
‘The sun hovered just above the horizon and long shadows reached out in front of him.’ There’s that action thing again. BTW, you can tell that I like shadows, a lot. But isn’t that how we naturally/physiologically tell time? We look at the position of the sun in the sky and the length of the shadows on the ground. BTW#2, we know which way our character is looking (away from the sun). Important? It might be – maybe he’s hiding within the light.
Now without the shadows: ‘With little warning, daylight was dying in the woods behind him.‘
Final one: ‘He gazed out the window at the clusters of neat farmhouses and barns that dotted the quilted world shrinking below. Their tiny facades reflected the day’s final light back towards the sun falling over Missouri.’
I will concede that sometimes ‘It’s 4:30 a.m.’ works just fine, particularly when you have something much more pressing to convey. But when the opportunity is there, go for the more descriptive, action-filled route. Your readers will appreciate it!