I spent fifteen minutes in the mud a few evenings ago. It had thundered, rained, hailed. I crouched behind a pear tree trying to capture the precise moment before a drop of water slid from the tip of a leaf, all with the blurry background of a ditched Plymouth Barracuda.
The lighting was off. My focus shifted unfailingly just before that sought-after moment and I scolded myself for lack of patience—disconnect—with the world.
There is a wonderful story by Anthony Doerr, “Mkondo”: a woman begins photographing the sky as reflected in various objects. In this, she comes out of a darkness and into a new passion for life because she is able to contain, so others understand, beauty the way only she sees it.
Someone, the other day, sent me a video of Malala Yousafzai addressing the UN. Immediately I felt like I’d failed at something. Why, I’m not sure. The most selfish response one could have, probably.
I wondered, when there are circumstances like this in the world, what good does it do for me to be thinking about the details of a character’s garden: iris or peony, iris or peony?
Then, what color peony?
I thought, I need to write bigger stories. More meaningful stories. More important, powerful, emotion-inducing stories. It’s not good enough to ponder, at my convenience, what might happen if I put two characters in room, in an interesting situation.
I believe, though, I was wrong. I’d examined this under the wrong light, from the wrong angle. The composition was not this thing here, that thing there. Rearrange the pieces. Travel to the other side of the room. Ask, what can writing—what can any art—do for the noble and the brave?
It teaches, one small moment at a time. It translates experience and gives universal access to what it means to be human, beautiful and cruel and mundane. The very things people like this young woman are willing to fight for—education, imagination, the freedom to explore that humanity—require that artists create.
It isn’t pretentious or self-aggrandizing. Truthfully, it’s humbling and it’s a lot of pressure. It means that, if done right, the color of the peony is infinitely important.