When you sit at your desk and take up your pen, you’re centered on the act of being a storyteller. You bring to bear all the skill and experience you’ve accumulated. But what about the moments when you aren’t shaping settings and characters? What mindset fills your head?
Our long-term effectiveness as writers requires us to constantly look at our surroundings with the eyes of an artist. This habit extends to all of life, enriching our stories by orienting us to the truth and beauty we seek to illuminate. The time we spend in the real world is perhaps more important than our meanderings into the fictional, because our lives are not subservient to writing. We aren’t sieves meant to catch useful moments of writability. Our lives are worth living on their own account.
We want our stories to reflect God, and we’ll cast the clearest image when we lead vibrant, faith-infused lives. Through the process of sub-creating, we translate our encounters with truth, beauty, and evil into art, making our impressions accessible and impactful to many. While we need technical skill to impart a message, having a bank of truths to withdraw from is paramount, and we can add daily deposits in two ways.
This is an underlying attitude that applies to the rest of my article. It’s similar to meditation but doesn’t involve emptying the mind. Rather, you quiet your internal monologue so you can see the scenery around you as if for the first time.
If I come across a fallen tree while hiking, I can choose to pay no more attention to it than a cursory glance—or I can pause to study it. Silencing my inner interpreter allows me the mental space to notice tiny wonders I would have normally overlooked. Bug trails under the bark. Deer hair snagged on a twig. Mice rustling in dark crevices underneath. The world abounds with details that hold unique and ofttimes hidden beauty. If we rush forward, or remain sequestered in our own minds, we’ll never know what exists right under our noses.
In keeping with the example of a fallen tree, I have found that exercising stillness is easier within nature, where there are no social distractions. As Psalm 19 declares, the realm of nature glorifies God with an unquenchably loud voice—simply by existing according to its design. Unfortunately, that’s rarely our perception because we haven’t tuned our ears to the sound. It can be heard in a leaf spiraling to the forest floor. In the mushrooms shelved along yon log. In a mother bird feeding her young. Not to be mystical, but God is in the details. Beauty is in the details. Truth is in the details.
So zoom in. Stop analyzing for one second, brake the ongoing train of thought about your own life, and appreciate the unending intricacies around you. It will cultivate a mood in you to join the chorus nature sings. And when you write, you will be more sensitive to the wealth of information that little details can communicate.
After speaking with God on Mount Sinai, Moses’ face shone, and the Israelites requested that he wear a veil to shield them from the terrifying sight. During the transfiguration on Mount Olivet, a similar glow radiated from Christ and His clothes. To diffuse beauty and truth into our stories, we must commune with the source: “Be still and know that I am God.”
How do we “be still” in prayer? By setting aside our own needs and desires, instead concentrating on who God is. His faithfulness is sure. His grace is sufficient. His knowledge and love are perfect. After meditating on His character, we’ll draw closer to Him than if we’d agonized over ourselves. The longer we gaze at Christ, the better we understand His holiness and mercy. We’ll recognize how His attributes are expressed to us every day and can incorporate them with more insight into our stories.
As broken, breaking, and breakable as we humans are, we can learn empathy by observing others’ struggles and triumphs. Like the first habit of stillness, this is about expanding our focus away from ourselves. We’ll begin to notice the quirks that make others special, and we might even be able to piece together their stories.
Hardships cause people to change, leaving scars that are both physical and emotional. A father and son may grieve for their wife and mother by doing what would otherwise be a meaningless activity—watching her favorite TV show together. Or a mother’s limp may reveal that she took the brunt of a fall to protect an infant she was carrying.
Pleasant memories can motivate people as strongly as pain. A young girl may offer her doll to a crying friend because the toy comforted her when classmates teased her at school. Or a father may adamantly insist on a peaceful Christmas because those were the happiest days of his childhood. Although his family members may argue or resent him for it, in his own mind, he’s hearkening back to an idealized past.
Though you might detect conflict and peace in human behavior patterns, you’ll have more success if you foster friendships that allow you to ask personal questions. Writers tend to equate the honing of their craft with isolation. But without forming connections, you’ll underestimate and misunderstand people. If soul-searching conversations don’t happen naturally, pursue them. Be aware that friendships are mutual, however, and you’ll be opening yourself up to the same process.
That’s just as well, because it leads directly to my last point: I believe we can also benefit from listening to ourselves. Maybe that seems contradictory to my advice thus far, but the goal is to unearth beauty and truth wherever it resides. If it’s in ourselves, we can glean there too.
When we praise God for the virtues He’s instilled in us, we aren’t being self-absorbed. We can dwell on the compassion a situation taught us, the forgiveness that freed us once we let go of a hurt, and the repentance that stung and then cleansed us. Reviewing our own inward battles—and the victories or failures that followed—can help us portray the inner landscape of our characters so that they feel intimately human.
Recording What the Eye Sees
Being an artist isn’t so much what we do as who we are, as Cindy Green’s poem “Sun-Reflector” illustrates. We can practice grammar and plot structure all day long, but unless our themes flow from our hearts, our stories will be shallow.
Stillness and listening won’t deepen your writing if you let your discoveries slip away, however. While visiting a pond, maybe you reflect on how fish swim to the surface for any disturbance in the water—even if it’s not food. Humans are similarly attracted to any novelty that appears, consuming it blindly without considering whether it’s worthwhile or not. The application for writing is right there. A metaphor, a soliloquy—the possibilities are endless. And you’ll forget it quickly if you don’t jot it down.
Draw character sketches of people who stand out to you and journal about powerful moments in your life and the lives of others. The ideas you stash away don’t necessarily have to end up in any of your projects. That’s not the purpose of developing this habit. Rather, you’re training your mind to view the world like an artist, to push past the banalities and absorb all the beauty, ugliness, and truth so you can pour it onto paper more authentically.
Artists are on the hunt for inspiration even when they aren’t writing. Are you?
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2020. Updated July 4, 2022.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.