The past few weeks, I have had some life challenging encounters with total strangers. Not only did they challenge the way I look at the world and the people in it, but they challenged my creative process.
This is an article about social interaction and creativity.
I had two conversations with two elderly people. One was a man of eighty-eight and the other was a woman of eight-two.
I initiated the first conversation by accident. The old man was at the pharmacy and I made a comment, trying to be witty. He smiled and began to tell me about his ailments like every old goat does. I nodded and smiled politely then he said, “I’m fightin’ somethin’ now, boy.” I told him to keep fighting and then it began.
My new friend started to tell me about his life as a professional prize-fighter, the mob, crooked police and politicians, his wife of 67 years that he recently lost and his love for Cadillacs. He told me about his cousin, also a professional prize-fighter that fought Joe Louis. I was mesmerized. I laughed. I somberly listened. I asked questions and our conversation was lively. We talked for over an hour and I watched a withered, eighty-eight year old man who had just lost the love of his life after 67 years of marriage, stand a little straighter. His eyes grew brighter. We were like two old pals talking about the good ol’ days. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with anyone! When we finally parted, I asked him his name. He turned and looked at me and said in his gravelly voice, “They call me Frenchy.” Then he shook my hand and was gone. I haven’t stopped thinking about him since. That was almost two weeks ago.
My second encounter was with an eighty-two year old little woman. We were both in the soap aisle at our local grocery store. She was a jabber monkey, talking to everyone that walked by. I could tell by her accent that she was from the South. I decided to walk over and fire up a conversation. We talked about soap for a few minutes then it happened. She began to tell me about her life.
She had six kids, back in a day when only one paycheck was needed to raise a family. They were happy. She enjoyed the school activities and being a homemaker. Every child was their own person, unique in every way. Her oldest children were twins, a boy and a girl. The boy, a son with promise, had just entered West Point Military Academy. He was a bright kid with military and political ambitions. He died at the age of 19 in a car accident. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” she told me. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, it was so long ago, but I could see the pain on her face as if it just happened yesterday. Then she said, “I keep him right here.” She patted her heart. “I have to. It still tears me up inside, but I always have him here with me.”
Dear God! What did I get myself into? There I was in the middle of a grocery store talking with this total stranger and on the verge of bursting into tears. I’m a grown man. I don’t burst into tears. I might sniffle. I might even quickly wipe away a rogue tear when no one is looking, but I would never burst into tears. No way.
So, I collected myself and then said to her, ” “I can see that you keep him with you. You keep him as close to you as you possibly can.”
I saw a tear roll down her cheek and she said, “You never really forget, do you?”
“Nor should you,” I told her.
And then we parted ways. That was it.
Writers tend to spend much of their time alone. They rarely leave their desks as they are always working. Writers have few close friends, if any friends. They have colleagues. They have editors. And they have fans. Friends, however, are like Bigfoot. Heard of but rarely seen. I’m sure this is common among many artists as art is normally an internal process ultimately expressed publicly.
Writers may have social interactions with other writers or editors, but when those moments happen, they’re whitewashed with shoptalk. They are not having a real life experience. Those moments, cleverly disguised as life experiences, dull the sword. Then one day, the writer wakes up, his dull sword before him, and he realizes that he isn’t fit for battle anymore.
Those two conversations sharpened my sword to a razor’s edge. I have a new philosophy: talk to everyone, especially old people, and you’ll experience a wide range of emotions all at once.
So, my advice to writers and other artists. Your life isn’t that interesting. Your imagination is only as bright as the life you lead. Get out there and meet people. Talk to strangers. Learn about people. See them as they truly are and not as they want to be seen. We all wear masks. Get behind the masks. Ask questions. Hear their stories. Feel their joy and their pain. Then go home and make notes. Think about the people, how they made you feel, and the what ifs. Remember the look in their eyes, the way their voice changed when they spoke. Your imagination will thrive.
Thanks for reading.