Maybe the most important part of writing for me has been learning to trust the part of myself that wants to put strange things together. I have two little sons now, and all the toys and games they have seem to want to teach them to categorize things properly: put all the triangles together. Put all the red objects together. Stack these boxes in ascending size. Put all the vehicles over here, and put all the animals over there. Categorizing is an important part of every culture, and every culture does it uniquely, and every child in every culture will probably learn how to categorize properly. But there is also another way to put things together, and it is based on memory and intuition.
Here is an example: There are vertical blinds over the window behind the desk where I am writing right now. I had vertical blinds over my window in a house I lived in when I was about three. The house I lived in when I was three smelled like oil because of the old heater in the basement. The basement is also where my mother and I would finger-paint pretty regularly—so that we didn’t get the rest of the house messy. In the winter, we also took watercolors outside and painted the snow, which turned into colored ice. We could look through the pastel ice that we just painted and see chicken feathers from the chickens my parents raised the summer before. Those were chickens we had killed, and that were in our freezer. My mom fried the chicken feet for me, and I loved gnawing on them—I thought they tasted like french fries. I often look out this window above my desk right now, years later in Los Angeles, and for a very tiny second, I see the painted snow and ice from that old house instead of the red and blue and white cars going by in the warm sunshine. I can even smell the oil. I can feel the dried finger paint under my nails.
That kind of remembering takes some daydreaming. That takes patience with yourself—you have to give yourself the time and the space to daydream. Then you have to sit there and think about the daydream (which looks identical to daydreaming). Then you have to have a notebook that you carry around with you everywhere and you have to always remember to jot down those clusters of ideas. In my notebook, that above set of thoughts might look something like this:
Vertical blinds in Los Angeles, vertical blinds in Nebraska.
Los Angeles means “the angels.”
Smell of oil, basement, oil boiler, cement with oil stains on it.
Fingerpainting, smell of finger paints and oil, brown and purple stains around my fingernails
from all the paint mixing and drying.
The feel of dried paint under nails. The feel of frozen watercolors.
Painting with water colors on the snow. The snow melting. Pink ice. Blue ice.
Chicken feathers under the blue ice.
Cars going by like snow melting into watercolor. Palm trees caught in the sunshine
like chicken feathers caught under ice.
Now, that thing that I might write in my notebook—that writing up above—that’s not a poem, that’s not a story, that’s not anything yet—those are just me gathering together ideas and thoughts. And they aren’t edited. I would write them down and I wouldn’t worry about how good or bad they were, and I wouldn’t worry about what they meant, or what anyone might think if they saw them. Later on, I might use some of those ideas, or words, or images in a story or in a poem. Maybe someday one of my characters will be a kid that spends one sad day after her house burned down painting snow with the only thing that survived the fire: a box of watercolors. And that kid will watch the snow turn into translucent pink and green ice, and see the chicken feathers below the ice, and wish she could head back into he destroyed house for her favorite lunch—a huge plate of fried chicken feet—but she can’t.
Or, the ideas I wrote down in my notebook might become something else entirely—I can’t plan it out that early. I just have to trust that I should write my memories, thoughts, impressions, daydreams, everything down in my notebook, and that they will find their place in my writing later on. I also have to remember to write down not just the memory, but the things that lead me to the memory… the vertical blinds, the cars, the Los Angeles sunshine. I have to remember to put together in my notebook things that don’t seem to “go together”—but they do go together, because they are linked together in my mind. Maybe no one else in the world would put together chicken feathers, water colors, ice, palm trees, Los Angeles sunshine, heating oil, and vertical blinds—but I do. And that is an important enough reason to put it in my notebook.
Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry. You can find her at sarahvap.com