Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Moment to Moment

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 13•12

  Sometimes the smallest moments remind us of how fortunate we are to be writers.

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.







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  1. We were so glad you could come to our little conference, Jessica. Tallahassee is a place unlike any other in the South. Capital of a state that most would not really call Southern, it still holds the charm of the old South. The place where spring begins, it has to be one of the most green cities in the United States. For those of us with allergies this is a two edged sword. The flowers are beautiful, the scents enchanting, the pollen suffocating. I am sorry that you were not able to spend some more time in our fair city. I’m sure you would have enjoyed the canopy roads that stretch out of the city to the north, despite the efforts of the state Department of Transportation to widen the roads and cut the trees; efforts so far resisted by the citizens of Tallahassee who realize how special these archways of oak and Spanish moss really are.
    Your talks at the conference were interesting and informative. I was impressed that our conference could attract a speaker of your caliber, and maybe we will see you back here in the subtropics some in the future.

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks for the kind words.
      I wish I would have stayed longer and explored the region. It’s vastly different from the Northwest and I believe we all need to leave home from time to time, to see life and our surroundings as new whenever possible. And would love to return to the conference–it’s a great group of people and really well run.

    • Alvaro says:

      Jessica Posted on This is amazing. I feel truly iesnirpd by all that you do, and this is why. Thank you for always sharing your incredible music. I love you.

  2. Beautiful essay, Jessica. You provided a good example of your advice at the conference. Thanks!

  3. This was a lovely reminder to incorporate all our senses into our writing, to be fully in the moment for ourselves and for our characters.

    • jessicap says:

      Today’s fiction needs to be especially experiential and sensory in order to compete with all the media that’s out there.

    • Arlen says:

      Thank you for asking!I rlaely, rlaely like first pages workshops. You have them read their first page and tell them when you would stop and say no or ask for more.Query letter bootcamps are nice, too. Dan Lazar gives one that is kind of brutal, but helpful.Also, the day in the life is great…but perhaps on the “secret circle” of agent and editor life. Who do you know?…What do you talk about? Do you read writer’s forums and blogs?What mistakes are we making?When is it time to stop submitting?

  4. You truly are a wonderful writer Jessica… I enyoyed this very much!

  5. So darn beautiful Jessica.

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks…it’s a moment I won’t ever forget.

      • David says:

        I think that the most important thing to rebemmer when presenting workshops to writers is to assume a level of professionalism among your audience. We hold a sort of reverence for people in the publishing business, and we hang on every word you say. The worst thing you can do is to be negative or condescending in your tone. It’s not that you have to be unrealistically positive. It’s just that we know the business is tough. We’ve been rejected and we keep at it. It’s important for an agent to continue to fan the flames and keep us excited about what we do, not regretting the fact that we fell in love with such a daunting career.

  6. Writing gifts the scribe with an instrument to experience the emotion and then release it. A fine writer gifts the reader with the experience and the means to hold it close forever. This one will stick with me for a very long time. I agree. It’s glorious.

  7. I wanted to follow up and let you know how , a great deal I loved discovering your web blog today. I would consider it an honor to do things at my office and be able to make use of the tips shared on your web site and also take part in visitors’ remarks like this. Should a position connected with guest writer become offered at your end, make sure you let me know.

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