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Lately, I’ve been thinking about this expression: “I had half a mind to say ….” Usually, what follows the ellipsis is the unspeakable, what cannot be said. It is what the speaker wants to say, but will not for any number of reasons.
I had half a mind to call him an ass. I had half a mind to tell her to leave.
The phrase suggests that there is a ‘good’ half of our minds—the one busily making us presentable, stopping us before we say what we shouldn’t, helping us be likable. After all, our conscious minds tilt towards the parts of ourselves that are pleasing and nice, rather than not. Yet it’s often the nasty, forthright half that’s fertile ground for writers. Lately, I’ve noticed a way to coax the nasty and/or truthful out of its cave and use it for my work, and I hope it offers you something.
I’ve always been a walker, even when I was a runner. As a small child, I walked to the creek, the park or the library, proud of my independence. Later, as a new New Yorker, I walked everywhere because I was lonely, young, and curious. Now, in Denver, I walk for exercise, because the dog demands it, and because I still love it. But in the last few years, it’s become clear to me that walking has a profound effect on my writing; in part, because walking gives me half a mind—an honest, urgent, sometimes disagreeable, half.
Most walking we can do without conscious thought about the act itself. Yet we’re not unaware of what’s happening either. An icy surface, a curb slightly lower than expected, a car coming when we cross the street—all of these things demand a second of our attention when we’re walking, but they’re simple enough, and we’re practiced enough, that we aren’t taken wholly away from whatever we’re thinking about. We can still hum along to the background music while we skirt the puddle.
And what exactly is this background music? For me, when I have unstructured time alone, I go over the stories of my life. What happened yesterday, or ten years ago, or what might happen in an hour. I think, as the Nicene Creed says, about what I have done and left undone. I think about my work, my family, my friends, my problems. I imagine myself slightly better than I actually am, or I unweave and then re-knit the old regrets. In short, I have half a mind, and it’s all bound up in feelings and memories and wishes.
So, there I am, walking along, half conscious of the traffic and sidewalk, half conscious of some discomfort—I am scheduled to see a friend, but I don’t want to see the friend, and I wish I could get out of it because I’d rather be doing something else, but I don’t know how to cancel, and, by the way, how resentful I am, because I can’t say what I need—and right about then, a story I am working on will pop in my head, and I’ll think, Hal is a jerk because he thinks his parents loved his brother more and he’s spent his life trying to recover the love he thinks he didn’t get.
Did they love the brother more?
Yes. But the brother moved away so now, Hal is the favorite by default.
What if the brother came back?
Hal would feel threatened. But he also wants his brother to like him.
Maybe they should go on vacation.
Good idea! To the family cabin.
Shouldn’t one of the parents be there, if it’s about siblings?
Dad’s dead. But I’ll send mom up there and give her a few drinks. And dementia.
Then nothing will go right.
What will Hal do when he realizes that he’s never going to get what he wants?
He’s gonna blow.
And so on. One half of my mind is making sure I don’t walk into a tree and the other half seems to be off gossiping with itself about characters in a story. The heart of the story, born of half a mind–the one that, like village fool, speaks the urgent truth. I’d spent weeks thinking, writing, and structuring the story referenced above, but I hadn’t gotten to the bones of it before a particularly fertile walk in November in which my own resentment about meeting up with a friend collided with a character I’d been working on. My feelings about my friend and the character’s feelings aren’t the same—it’s not a direct line from me to Hal—but the process of allowing myself to wander around and be honest about what I was feeling gave me a way to understand a character.
For me, the art and magic of a story is a result of both attention and inattention. Walking, because it occupies some brain space, doesn’t allow me to dwell on the details of a story. Instead, it requires that I get to the essence of the story, in brief, clear sentences. The trick, it seems, is to give a little busy work to half your mind—the half that wants you to like liked, to be diplomatic, to think before you speak. Take that half to the park or the streets near your house. Once that half is concerning itself with walking, you can let the other half out of its cage to find the rawness of deep feelings.
Ever since that walk, I can feel poor character Hal, his desperate and endless wish for love, the way he longs for his brother to be a different sort of person, the way he hates him for not playing along. Freed from the constraints of my presentable self, my hidden half-mind goes right to the big feelings: love, hate, jealousy. There’s something about the fresh perspective of a walk—even though I am inclined to walk in nearly the same places every day—that wakes up something in my imagination, something that mostly slumbers at my desk. In the new year, I’ve made myself a promise to walk when I’m stuck, to say completely and richly on paper what I’ve got a half a mind to say on my walk.
Emily Sinclair received her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her stories and essays have been published in The Normal School, Colorado Review, Crab Creek Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Emily is a member of the Lighthouse faculty. She teaches the 4-Week Craft Intensive, Lushness in Prose, beginning January 12.
“Resolution Write” is a blog series offering writing tips from Lighthouse faculty and members. We’ll feature posts throughout January to inspire writers who’ve resolved to make 2015 a productive and successful writing year.