Monday, January 21, 2008


by Gina Sestak

[Another digression from my posts about prior jobs.]

There is a fundamental difference between writers and other people, I've been told. That difference is that writers write. By "write," I don't just mean the act of putting pen to paper or fingertip to key. I mean the magical alchemy by which we transmute human experience and ideas into words.

For me, this usually involves translating whatever I'm experiencing into nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives while it's still in progress. No matter what is happening around me, be it flower petals wafting on a zephyr or a distracted driver trying to merge into my car, somewhere in the back of my mind I'm crafting sentences to describe what's going on.

This isn't always a good thing. When I stood beside my aunt's deathbed putting words to family tragedy I felt like a ghoul. But those sentences formed the core of my essay "Breathe Out" that won second place for non-fiction in Pennwriters' 2004 contest.

I was thinking about this last week when I had the flu. You have to understand, I had it bad. Vomiting, diarrhea, chills. Three days without eating. Too little energy to feed the cats. [Don't worry. They had dry food available.] Part of me was thinking, "Am I going to die?" while another part, the writer part, was putting the sensations into words.

I'm not going to record that graphic description of my symptoms here, but I suspect I'll use it somewhere. I've often wondered whether Anne Rice was sick while she was writing "The Tale of the Body Thief." [!!SPOILER ALERT!!] In that book, Anne Rice's protagonist Lestat (a vampire) is tricked into trading bodies temporarily with a human, only to discover that the human body is infected with a disease meant to kill it, thereby allowing the human trader to retain Lestat's vampire body. Anne Rice gives us detailed descriptions of being ill from the perspective of someone who hasn't had so much as a cold in centuries. Another part of the same book made me wonder whether or not Anne Rice had recently acquired a dog.

Does everybody else do this, too? Do you find yourself in traffic, in nature, or in bed(!) putting everything you experience into words? Please let me know.


NL Gassert said...

Yes. Yes, I do this. I’m “writing,” even when I’m not putting pen to paper. I’m so glad you brought this up. I feel less weird now :-)


Tory said...

I don't remember doing what you're describing, exactly (perhaps my writing would be the better for it), but I notice how someone tells me a story or experience and I think, "That would make a good novel!" The last one was an ex-cop friend talking about patroling alone at night and his relationship with the police dispatcher: hearing the transmissions was sort of his "umbilical chord" to someone friendly and safe. I wondered, "Has that been done? A police procedural where the protagonists are a cop and a dispatcher?"

Annette said...

Yes, yes, YES! Just the other day I slipped my hand into my barn coat pocket and my fingers touched a sunflower seed that had hidden there rather than go into the feeder and my brain immediately began a running description of the feel of the seed. This ALWAYS happens. Like a running commentary on my life.

Thank you, Gina, for letting me know I'm not completely nuts. Or, if I am, at least I'm not alone.

Joyce said...

I don't do it quite the way you do, Gina. What I do is more like a rewrite--I'm much wittier when I compose the scene in my head!

I'm constantly writing whatever my current project is in my head, though. That's usually how I work out the next scene. It's also how I get to know new characters--I have to put them in different situations before I write them into the book.

Nancy said...

Hmm...I have never read the body thief book by Anne Rice, but now I think I've got to get a copy.

As for the thinking in narrative form, I can do you one better, Gina.---I often think in writerly terms, but simultaneously envision my fingers on the keyboard, striking the correct keys as I conjure the right words. It's just....bizarre.

Martha Reed said...

I catch myself trying to capture something I see in words as well as toy with something I hear (as in 'that would make a good story). Riding the bus to work is like watching a soap opera - after 10 years I know all the characters.

Pat Conroy's mother, on her deathbed, complained that he was taking notes!

JennieB said...

My way is Joyce's way. Every conversation I have is a scene, and I craft it to the best of my ability as I go along. And like Nancy, sometimes I see myself typing, as well. DH writes on the air. Has been for as long as I've known him, and that's getting to be a long time.

Gina said...

Nadja, Annette - it's nice to know I'm not the only one.

Nancy - have you read other Anne Rice books? If not, you may want to read some others first because Body Thief brings together two previously separate series, the Vampire Chronicles and the Mayfair Witches/Taltos, and it's a lot of fun to see how the characters interact once they come in contact.

Martha - I've been driving for the last few years and really miss the chance to eavesdrop on the bus. It's always so interesting to hear what people are talking about. Luckily, with the proliferation of cell phones, that's gotten even easier.

Christa M. Miller said...

Yes! I do it most often with description, which is my weak point. I think of it as a mental "workout" to keep myself fresh.

Kristine said...

Gina, I know exactly what you are talking about. All during my pregnancy, I wrote about my experience--the good and the bad. I wanted to remember and document every detail. I did the same thing after I gave birth. Not sure when or if I'll use those details in my writing, but you never know.