On Writing: Stopping and Noticing

Damaris Coulter Photo-of-photo: Taken by W. Alexander

The lights this morning beam bright. I cozy myself into, what I think is a pine desk, in the furthermost corner of the WPL—Wolfeboro Public Library. My closest neighbor is a beautiful artwork, really a fine-art-esque, professional photograph, named “Service.” In the picture, a strong woman poses. She’s proud, she’s tattooed, she’s in bibs, and she wears big, gold hoop earrings. She’s my dream! Granted, if I wasn’t already married to my dream girl. Her eyes reveal her wisdom, courage, and the tough story that gave her both of these very obvious powers.

I didn’t expect when I sat down this morning and began hacking out the next phase in my latest novel, I would be interrupted. However, it’s her words, not her photo, which are responsible for holding my attention.

Damaris Coulter: "Rather than being focused on money or pretense, our family was more focused on asking, 'Are you being a good friend and sibling? Are you kind? Are you generous?'"

Ms. Coulter owns a restaurant, along with her sister, called Coco’s Cantina, and every Friday, they offer a meal to the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.

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On Stopping and Noticing

When’s the last time you stopped and noticed what’s around you? When’s the last time a stranger’s photograph and short bio wrestled your attention from the day’s insurmountable tasks? The masters teach all true and good artists are versed and proficient in our abilities to observe. I admit it: I’m great at finding, thinking about, and weaving the tiniest, nearly invisible, sliver of details and ideas stemming from everything I see and experience into my writing. Of course, artists like me, like you, still miss more than we catch. It means we’re human and other clichés.

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Trust me when I tell you that stopping and noticing the details around you is life’s most generative experience, not only will your writing improve, but so will your mental health. You don’t have to go to your local library to get inspired to notice. Stopping and noticing is not something a person just-knows-how-to-do, but it’s the easiest philosophy to pick-up, and will generatively fill your life with gratitude and empathy.

What’s Her Story got To Do with Me?

I’m writing a historical fiction novel that takes place in the fifth century B.C.E., Egypt. So what’s a woman who owns a restaurant outside of Auckland, NZ, have to do with me as a writer and Egypt? I’m glad you asked. Here me out:

One of my main character’s is a prostitute. She didn’t choose the life god(s) set out before her, and everyone in her world keeps their strides wide and their noses upturned. Nobody ever reaches out to help her. This was, is, and I fear, will always be the plight of our world’s most vulnerable. It’s called Neighbor Apathy. Okay, I just made that term up. Neighbor Apathy is when we believe we can’t help someone so different, in such a foreign reality, living a lifestyle we can never be seen to walk next, so we choose not to offer a hand, and we choose our own pride and judgement over another’s brokeness. That’s Neighbor Apathy.

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Here’s the literary theme of my character’s arc: culture creates its own evils. Neighbor apathy is disagreeing with someone, someone in your community, someone’s story you know nothing about, and judging you won’t have anything to do with them. In other words: ‘I don’t like them, so I don’t care what they think or do or believe.’

W. Alexander, 2022

The Bible teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so when we think a stranger’s problems aren’t ours, then we think we know better than God and his desire for human harmony. He says to help the breaking, to shut up and listen to the hurting, and do something, anything at your disposal, that He’s blessed you with, to change the lives of the flailing. Not for your joy, but because God holds each of us responsible for what we do, and for what we choose not to do.

A wise man once said: It’s not what I believe, but what I do that defines me. That man was Batman, so you know he’s right.

So, when I took my seat this morning, in a library I don’t normally work from, and I noticed Damaris Coulter’s photo called Service, and I read her short bio, clicked and followed the QR link to her youtube, and I learned about her work, I engaged in the generative experience of learning how at least one-human, in this case Coulter, is making a difference in a world tired of being asked to make a difference.

I know nothing about Ms. Coulter, but I know art, and therefore I know the eyes of empathy and strength, and hers aren’t swimming in empty platitudes. She shields the broken or breaking from life’s universal, but horrible lie: we are alone in our struggles. She’s a hero. Her legacy helps my own story.

She Helps my Story

My second-leading character’s name is Satipy. She’s the prostitute, and her background comes straight from academic and contemporary research. Satipy was stolen as a young girl. She was robbed from a healthy home and forced into sex-slavery. She’s forced to work outside various Egyptian gods’ temples. She’s seen as meat, not as a person. People avoid her on the streets; mothers warn daughters not to be like her, father’s lust in secret, but are harsh with her in the square. Satipy, par-ably, represents the misrepresentation of struggles. Until this morning, and my encounter with Ms. Coulter, I wasn’t confident about how her story ends. That changed.

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I know how she ends now. Satipy is a positive arc. She starts from somewhere low and hopeless, and she ends somewhere better-off, but most importantly, and convicted by her experience to keep other girls, and boys, from ending up trafficked slaves in the Ancient-Near-East. Now, I think, no I know, her ending will have her generatively reaching out and helping others at great personal risk. Like her, everyone she knows is forgotten by the world’s prudes —majority of populations.

Stopping and Noticing Works

On the other side of a globe, unique to her own vision, and for her own reasons, Ms. Coulter began feeding the prostitutes in her area, giving them one less need to have to perform-their-services. She is serving them with love not judgement. She could have, and probably never will have, any idea that her photo and story hangs in the Wolfeboro Public Library, in rural Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, USA. She might never know how her legacy, which I happened to stop and notice, will influence and help me write and flesh-out the The day god Died. But, that fact is encouraging, because you never know how your own actions can cross the globe and inspire others. None of us are doing any of this life alone; we’re all in this together, so stop and notice the life around you, and your life will grow.

The power of stopping and noticing is paramount to honest writing. You cannot write what you do not know, and you will never learn the complexities of the human condition by not taking interest in strangers. Empathy is a practice, not an ideal.

So, I say all true and good artists are proficient in empathy, because they stop and notice and refrain from Neighbor Apathy.

—Happy Writing.

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The Day god Died: Chapters I & II

“…I hated him and his kind. I hated his affluence, his expensive clothes, his chiseled looks, and the arrogance he was born too. But most of all, I hated the power he held over me, his assumption of authority, and the truth of his superiority.”