Growing up as a Writer: Learning to Think as a Writer by Brad Windhauser
Henry James famously said, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” I stress this with my students every semester. But what does it mean, some ask? We pay attention, I tell them, and when we do, we get to stay in the moment, paying attention to the nuisance of a gathering, the details of the weather, the random guy who’s putting on a coat and turning up his collar as he rushes down the sidewalk on a 70 degree fall afternoon…details most people are too busy, too distracted, or too indifferent to catch. It means you make time to slow down, to watch, to study, to observe, to learn, to appreciate.
And once you make the time, the habit will come easily.
This is the best skill a writer can develop, and for me, growing up as a spaz of a kid, one who had his head in the clouds and needed to spend more time in the moment to avoid getting hit by cars while riding his bike, this life lesson was important.
Like most kids, I liked to have fun, but I wasn’t always paying attention to things like the pole in front of me on the playground, what would happen if I let go of the jungle gym bar, or the specific details of a movie I enjoyed. When pressed for details about what happened in an accident (a scrape, a bruise, a broken nose) or a movie, I usually shrugged, as if the only important thing was getting better or knowing that I liked something. The what, the why, the when, the who, and the where often seemed inconsequential.
Although my general demeanor caused my parents a great deal of stress and worry—would I make it home in one piece?—they mostly let me be (after, perhaps, a lecture on safety). And when I wasn’t running around I spent time buried in books.
Among other things, this hobby exposed me to story. Since I loved mysteries—Encyclopedia Brown series, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Detectives—I learned to pay attention to details of the story, piecing together the crime or mystery as it unfolded. Developing this habit, I learned to notice details in real life.
This allowed me to tell stories to other people, and in so doing, I learned to determine which details were important. I then began to see things in terms of story, which compelled me to be on the lookout for interesting details, which often encouraged me to reflect more than the average person on what happened. In turn, this has taught me a thing or two about what I’ve missed (or overlooked): sometimes my take on an event was altered based on examining it more closely, like an argument.
But no story is complete without characters, and learning about characters taught me a lot about people. Being an introvert, I missed a lot of social cues people learn early. As a result, I wasn’t always sure how people were supposed to act or why they acted a certain way in a certain context, like when not to tell an off-color joke at a family BBQ. Because of this, people seemed strange to me, which likely explains why I had trouble relating to kids my age when I was growing up. Books helped fill in the gaps.
Do I have people figured out? No, but I know that books have continued to expose more and more about the human experience, and if I had not begun this exploration through books early, I would have a lot more catching up to do. My life would not be the same if books hadn’t help me process life the way they have, and I’m thankful to every writer I’ve ever read for sharing his or her truth about living. My writing would not be the same without their insight.