Earlier this year, after I was laid off a job I loved, researching and writing for Wall Street, I was trying to figure out how–without a beat–I could continue to be a writer (as my brother John says, “whatever the hell that means”). I couldn’t imagine sitting and writing every day without an assignment. I mean seriously, what would I say?
I’d never thought of myself as creative; I wrote well, but never invented characters or plots. Even as an essayist, I had trouble settling on a subject. My writing was perpetually blocked.
But I really wanted to write, so I began collecting writing prompts, hoping to gain discipline if not ideas, and I came across one that, although it seemed likely to elicit a dreadfully boring product, at least appeared easy enough to master. It said: Be still, clear your mind, look around, and describe your surroundings.
This morning my friend Ernie sent me a couple of emails about writing, one of which offered advice on plowing through writer’s block. Although the author focused on releasing inhibitions, my own takeaway reminded me of the surroundings prompt.
I’d forgotten it until, early on a cold, rainy Saturday morning during Mardi Gras, looking for an excuse to decline invitations I knew would come and knowing how supportive friends had become of my desire to write, I took a deep breath, pulled my laptop onto my bed, and prayed for inspiration. After staring at the blank screen for several minutes, I remembered the prompt. I was skeptical, but I decided to give it a shot.
Turns out the prompt worked really well, gradually opening my descriptions to include not just my surroundings but the feelings they evoked. This is what I wrote:
It’s the Saturday before Mardi Gras. Rain has canceled all daytime parades, and Mid-City residents are waiting to learn if our prized Endymion will roll tonight or be rain-delayed till tomorrow, meaning it would be snatched from its position as the last remaining neighborhood parade and exiled to the Uptown route with all the others.
I am in bed, reading online newspapers, watching Bridesmaids, listening to NPR–a typical morning of multitasking. Across the room my phone dangles from its charging cord. In the second outlet is my laptop charger, and as my eyes follow the cord to my lap I notice the green light: I am fully charged. I unplug the charger; I’ve heard it’s bad for the battery to remain plugged in all the time.
My phone rings. I don’t answer. I think it’s Melissa–I told her to call me if she wants to walk around the French Quarter. It’s Mardi Gras weekend, there are no parades Uptown; the French Quarter will be full, even with the rain.
But I do not get up to answer the call. My dogs and a cat are in bed with me, all of them lying in various locations to my left. Bosco is on his left side, his head pointing toward the end of the bed. He’s a big brown and white dog, with a skinned-up nose and floppy ears. He’s 11, and his eyes are cloudy now. But they are always full of love, every time they look at me. Of all my pets, I am certain Bosco loves me the most.
Pip is pressed against my hip, a tiny ball of wiry buff-colored hair with giant ears. He appears to be part terrier, part chihuahua–I tell people he’s a terijuajua. A neighbor found him last winter, running the street terrified in the freezing cold, and after a month of setting cat traps she finally caught him. I said I’d foster him but that she had to find him a home because I had too many pets already. She found two; the first fell through, and when he flunked out of the second–for not being house-broken–I realized I was relieved, and I knew I had a third dog.
Lola is curled up next to Pip, toward the headboard. She’s a brindle pit-bull mix, black and gold. I call her my Saints dog, and I just bought her an NFL nametag with the fleur-de-lis logo. Lola is 12 but still energetic, and easily distracted. She loves me, but I believe she would be happy with any owner. When she meets someone new, in the park or on the street, she jumps on their thigh and gives them a hug. I’ve tried to break her of the habit–kneeing her, spraying her with water–but she cannot resist a new lap. Lola loves people.
At 13, Ruby is my oldest pet. She’s orange, and her long hair is marked with swirls instead of stripes. I think she looks like a creamsickle. She’s curled up next to Lola, her tail draped casually across Lola’s neck like a boa.
Contentment surrounds me this Saturday morning, and it is why I did not move when my phone rang, with the invitation to join the world outside my bed and my fuzzy family.