“We only get the present moment,” the author of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote to his twenty-something audience. We can’t go backward of forward, though our minds can think about the past or dream about the future. Add to this issue the modern ability to be elsewhere with our computer or phones and you have an overwhelming temptation to ignore what’s happening right before your very eyes.
But life happens here and now. And it’s really easy to get so distracted that we miss it.
Read this excerpt from A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker. The entire book is about Emmet’s experiences first thing in the morning as he lights a fire. That’s it. No guns or cars or nail-biting cliff hangers. Just what’s going on in the life of this middle-aged editor of medical textbooks as he sips coffee by a fire every morning. More than any other author I know, Baker is able to describe moments in such mesmerizing detail that you feel transported into the narrative. And you can’t wait to read the next chapter to find out what happens next.
It takes a great artist to tell a compelling story out of a simple chore.
Read the excerpt slowly. Envision what he describes. Read it again and pay attention to his technique. His art.
I felt for a single match that I’d laid out in readiness. It wasn’t there. I must have brushed it off when I was setting down the mug. No problem—I found the book of matches easily and opened it. Ah, but then my fingers felt nothing but cardboard stumps, like a row of children’s teeth just coming in. It had been the last match in the matchbook.
Well, I needed a match to start the fire. I went back into the dining room. Usually on the dining-room mantel there is a little Japanese bowl with a matchbook or two in it, because we have a fire in there when we have people over for dinner. I started at the right-hand side of the mantel and I made little finger-bunching motions—match-bowl, match-bowl? I came to a small glass object holding a squat low candle in it. The wick, because the candle had been used, was very straight and hard and the end of it crumbled a little when my finger touched it. A little ways farther down was a bowl that I thought was the one, but inside there were some dried things that must be rose petals—it felt like a bowl of Special K. I knew I’d gone too far down the mantel, so I worked my way back, proceeding carefully in case there was some trinket that I would make fall. I came to a semi-vertical curving shape and remembered that there was an old plate leaning there. I couldn’t visualize the pattern of this plate. Claire loves china but I can only keep in mind the china we use every day.
No, there were not matches that I could find on the dining-room mantel, and that meant I had to go back to the kitchen to see if there were any matches on the back of the stove. I should have thought of that right away. I groped delicately along the surface above the oven dials, past the cool facets of the salt and pepper shakers, and finally I came to a shape that moved easily when I touched it: the red box of wooden matches standing on its side.
I walked back to the living room and took a seat in the fire chair, and I pushed open the drawer of the matchbox, feeling both sides of the inner sliding tray when it emerged to be sure that I wouldn’t open it upside down and allow the matches to tumble plinkingly out, and I singled out one match and rolled its square shank between my fingers. When I struck it in the profundity of the dark I could see the dandelion head of little sparks shooting out from the match head and the eagerly waving arms of the new flame before it calmed down. The match flares more on the side away from where you slide it. Or am I wrong—is there more flare on the side that has touched the striking surface? I held the little flame to the scalloped hems of the balled-up newspaper lumps all along the front, and the fire worked its way in under the three logs, and soon I could feel its warmth on my shins.
Now, find a moment in your day to describe in the same manner. You will have to pay attention to the details. Become aware of how a bead of water slides down a window, or the motion of a leaf in the wind, or a bird hopping on one leg listening for bugs.