by Elizabeth Jannuzzi
“I don’t know if I became a writer because I notice writable moments. Or because I notice writable moments, I write.”
The other day my hair caught on fire. I don’t mean that as an idiom. (And yes, I googled “what type of expression is ‘my hair is on fire’” to learn that it is an idiom.) I mean literally, my hair burst into flames.
Here’s how it went down: After a long day of hiking, my husband and I and our two friends went out to dinner in Kent, Connecticut. (Due to this experience, my review of this quaint New England town will be forever singed—pun intended—with this horrible memory.) At the restaurant, the hostess showed us to our table. I sat down and felt something hot on the back of my neck. Somehow I knew immediately that my hair was on fire, but yet, I still shouted out, “Is my hair on fire?” I batted down the flames by hitting myself in the back of the head with my hand as black flecks of charred hair fell like snow on the white tablecloth. A smoking tumbleweed of hair came out in my hand. My tablemates and the nearby diners looked on with their mouths agape. I ran outside, embarrassed and shocked.
“What the hell?” I said to my husband who followed me outside to check on me. I pulled back my hair into a French braid and we went back inside. The hostess switched us to another table to move us away from the horrific smell and the black flecks of charred hair. The source of the fire was never identified. Did flames shoot up from the tableside sauté pan as I walked by? Was it the candle on the table? Or did my menopausal hot flashes finally make me spontaneously combust, as I always suspected they would?
After the Smoke Cleared, An Idea Sparked
For the rest of the evening, my mood was black like the charred flecks of my burnt hair. It’s hard to recover from a hair fire. However, the next day on the trail as we finished up part two of our two-day hike weekend I thought, “Huh, my hair caught on fire. Is that something I could write about?”
Do I Write Because I Notice Writable Moments or Vice Versa?
For as long as I can remember, certain situations have stood out to me as writable moments. I don’t know if I became a writer because I notice writable moments. Or because I notice writable moments, I write. It’s a chicken or egg scenario. But I can tell you that when a writable moment arrives, I get a tingling sensation, a pause. I suddenly notice how blue the sky is and the train whistle in the distance. There is an invisible tap on my shoulder that says, “There might be something here.”
Here are my favorite lessons on discovering writable moments.
1. Don’t try to force a writing moment. (I’ve tried and failed.)
After reading Dani Shapiro’s memoir Inheritance, I spit into a tube and sent my DNA to 23andMe. I awaited the results and fantasized about the possible stories that might arise. Maybe I have another sibling? Maybe I’m adopted? But alas, my boring DNA revealed nothing new or exciting about my family’s heritage. No writing moments there. I should have known better than to force it.
2. Don’t force it … but put yourself out there.
When I was 16 years old, I reluctantly attended a demolition derby at a county fair. At the time, I thought I was too cool for such trivial entertainment as crashing cars. But much to my surprise, I had a blast and I wrote about my experience for my high school creative writing class. My teacher praised my essay and it was the first time I thought: maybe I’m a good writer. So say “yes” to the demolition derby invite. Go outside and walk around the block. You are not going to find a writable moment on the couch.
3. Keep yourself open to the muse.
My friend Kelly, frustrated that her husband didn’t wake up when the baby cried at night, explained to him how to sleep while on kid duty. He could go to sleep (to be up all night was not feasible), but he had to sleep in such a way that he was aware of the kids. He rejected this idea as impossible, but I knew what she meant. It’s the same concept for discovering writable moments. You don’t have to go about your daily life with binoculars and a notebook, writing every moment down like Harriet the Spy. But you need to be open to the muse. Live your life but with an awareness that a writable moment might present itself to you. Listen for the crying baby even while you are asleep.
4. Small moments can be just as inspiring as big moments.
I’m not saying big moments can’t be writable. The Northeast Black Out of August 2003 was a momentous event that inspired a piece of writing for me. But I’ve also been inspired by melting snow on a ski mountain or a song playing at the supermarket. Again, I just need to be open to discovering the writable moment, whether it’s a big occasion or a small one.
It turns out the hair-on-fire event is not a writable moment. <shrug> I don’t know, it’s just not sparking anything (pun intended yet again). But on our hike the next day, a small toad hopped off the trail, and I suddenly noticed the crows cawing and my friend’s hiking poles clicking on the rocks. And that moment just might be my next writable moment.