The Secret

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could, once and for all, grab onto that one bit of advice that will make all the difference? In a recent New York Times essay, “The Art of Being Still,” Silas House writes:


I was a young, naïve, foolish writer who was searching for my way. I swallowed hard and asked him [James Still] if he had any advice on how to be a better writer. He didn’t answer for a long minute, gazing off at the hills as if ignoring me.

But then he spoke, and I realized that he had taken that moment for quiet thought. “Discover something new every day,” he said. That advice changed me as a writer and as a person.”

The narrator Paul Chowder of Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist (one of my favorite novels), says:


 And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?” And something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something I hadn’t known was important will leap out and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day. . . . Often, I went on, it’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking across a parking lot and admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed across the windshield. I thought, Ah, of course— I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. “And that’s my secret, such as it is,” I said.

― Nicholson BakerThe Anthologist

What’s your secret, such as it is?  What advice would you give? Or what have you learned from someone else?

Let me know.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to write or photograph (or both) the best moment of each day. Or something new. Right now, it is this quiet moment before our house guests arrive. (We have a lot of them here in Florida.)

6 thoughts on “The Secret

  1. I loved the quote about the best moment of the day. I’m going to try think about best moments instead of worrying about what I haven’t yet done today, which includes not having written a word.

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about “best moments.” First, they can’t be planned – they happen. I’ve not encountered a pinwheel of license plates, but the daffodils do give me a thrill when I walk out for the newspaper, accompanied by my morning aches and pains. And I was in a depression funk this weekend for the first time in months; heard a good line, with a twist of plot in “The Good Wife” and perked right up. “Oh,” I said to myself, “you haven’t had time to write more than one sentence in 3 weeks. That’s why you’re depressed.” So it’s the creative, the aesthetic moments that are my best ones.

  3. I know what you mean, Carol. I too enjoy those moments and know that I’m truly happy (absorbed?) when I’m writing–whether it be for this blog, in my writer’s notebook, or for a more sustained project, like the collection of poems I’m working on now or my mother’s story that must be told.
    I also enjoy collecting those moments during the day when I’m struck by the unexpected, the surprise, the “once” experience. I’ve been trying to write those down. Here is one from a few days ago that I found on my i-pad: “The most beautiful moment…Saturday…From my office, I can see the sunlight of this late afternoon in Sanibel, hitting the metal frame of the outdoor fireplace to create a delicate web design on the tiles. A shadow falls in an angle across the stucco, and beside the wall is the bright green of that Norway pine I bought for Christmas.”

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