February 3, 2009

Standing on the Bottom Rail

You'd think that, since I'm a writer, my head would be swimming with words. The truth is that I'm not really a "word person." That's not to say that I don't have a way with words. I do, and I love to write. But often when I put words on paper, it's to give life to the pictures in my head. I call them my "snapshots."

Snapshots! What in the world is she talking about? "Snapshot" is an old-fashioned word for an informal photograph. As I'm writing this, the snapshots in my head are of my grandmother taking snapshots with her Brownie camera. If you're too young to remember Brownies, here's a picture:

illustration by BETHANY STEPHENS

My brain has an unusual way of storing information. It's as if it takes snapshots of people, places, and things and then plays them back to me as a sort of slideshow. Random pictures play through my head in no particular order. For just a second, I might "see" the Halloween costume that my mother made for me when I was ten, or the green heron that visited my garden pond five years ago, or a line of yellow taxi cabs in Manhattan, stuck a traffic jam on Fifth Avenue. (Snapshots can be very specific.)

There's a thoughtful quotation that comes from A.A. Milne in Winnie-the Pooh. He writes: "Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known." My snapshots come from a lifetime of standing on the bottom rail, watching, soaking up all the little details of life. I've always been an observer. I love to stand and watch and wonder about what I see. And all the while, my brain is working as a silent partner taking snapshots so that I won't forget those little things -- the wonderful little things that make great writing.

Until recently, I thought that everyone had snapshots. When I shared that idea with friends, they unanimously agreed that I'm unique. (Well, actually, they said that I'm strange, but let's not get into that.) I've come to know that my snapshots are a gift. I "see" them for just a second or two, and I know that I might lose them forever if I don't jot them down. And that's what makes me a writer. I have this limitless cache of ideas in my head, and the beauty is that I never know which one will leap onto my paper as a story, or an essay, or a poem.

So, stay tuned. Let's see where the snapshots take us.