I’ve been thinking about this ever since I was down in Tallahassee last weekend teaching at a writing conference. My plane arrived late on Thursday night and Roberta, a member of the Tallahassee Writer’s Association, picked me up at the nearly deserted airport. She owns a Miata convertible and after wrestling my suitcase into the miniature trunk, we drove through the midnight hours with the top down and the night air sultry and as caressing as lover’s embrace.
I’d left Portland that grey morning amid drizzle and cold and now I was transported into what felt like the tropics. As we drove along in the quiet I noticed the perfumed air, an enchanting mix of honeysuckle, wisteria, and wild roses. Trees dotting the landscape, looming mysterious in the night. A green place.
It was a busy weekend since I taught four workshops, met with writers, ate meals and mingled with writers. Talked a lot. Slept little. That slept little part was a problem.
On Sunday afternoon after lunch I stepped out of a meeting hall into dazzling sunlight to walk back to the hotel to check out, musing about the writers I’d met, the conversations I’d participated in, the stories I’d read, laughter shared. The sun ablaze as temperatures neared 90, I felt languid from the heat and slowed by fatigue.
Ahead coming towards me were five African-American women, apparently just emerging from a pool since they were dressed in parrot-bright swimsuits and towels. The path they were on curved among trees and palms and it was as if they were a colorful, moving mirage with their rolling gaits and easy laughter.
I kept walking, the women now behind me when they began singing an old hymn, the chorus rolling through the heat toward me dreamlike and magical and rare. The harmonies easy and lifting. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and me.” And I felt like I had been blessed or that fate had tapped on my shoulder.
As I was hypnotized by their song, “come home, come home” I noticed a mockingbird perched on a branch overhead. It was singing too. “Many tongued” and “mimic” are part of their name and it’s theorized that their brains have more storage for songs than other birds. The medley it was producing sounded like part bird song and part hymn. I slowed, then stopped, taking in the distinctive markings with outlines along its wings. The song repeated and sweet, although he was probably claiming territory.
By now I felt sort of floaty, the heat enveloping me, loathe to walk away from the songs. But the women’s voices were more distant now since they’d almost reached their hotel.
I often tell writers to use sounds in their stories—not just dialogue, but screeches and barks and songs and slams. The brain reacts to sounds through our nervous systems honed in eons past when a predator’s growl or a cry slicing the night meant the difference between survival or death. Sounds evoke emotions in readers and onomatopoeia (words that make noise) are especially effective.
And as if I’d been walking through a dream I walked into the air conditioned hotel lobby.
Later, as Roberta and I drove back to the airport, reversing our trip in the daylight past palms and the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and noticing the differences in neighborhoods and architecture styles, the palms and green.
And I mention this again and again to writers. Pay attention. Moment to moment. Writers are scavengers and eavesdroppers. You never know what magic might appear when you least expect it. Write it down.