Writing Lessons

Learning to Let It Happen

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By Neil Shea

February 3, 2014


 

I was young, restless, and impatient when I decided to try writing, and I didn’t choose it because I loved words. I wanted the loose, impossible promises wound within them. A lot of the advice I got at the start didn’t stick, unless it came in how-to form, as in “how to get to Africa.” But there was one piece of writerly guidance that I held on to, partly because it was disguised in practical terms.

“Leave room for serendipity,” someone said, a Japanese anthropologist, perhaps, or maybe the writer Mark Kramer. It was vague. The wisdom of horoscopes. But it felt true. Whoever said it had been around, and meant for it to be applied, at first, to fieldwork, to the gathering of stories. The sentence translates many ways; back then I heard it like this: “Hang out better.”

So I tried simply to let things happen. In the field, I stayed as long as possible. I listened beyond the quote. I ate the food, drank the water, walked around, sat still, talked with everybody. Most important, I practiced silencing the banshee at the back of my mind who began wailing when nothing “interesting” seemed to be going on. My work involves observing the order and disorder of people’s lives, the decisions they make or don’t, how they fight, surrender, or pray through. Capturing this requires faith in unstructured time and mind. Rigid plans, tight outlines, electronic demands—these don’t hold up well against human fluidity.

Now I consider that advice when writing, too, because I understand it was really about learning to see. Stories happen independently of the writer, but a writer can always see better. Then the unexpected characters appear, the indelible moments unfold, the gray fabric of ideas and connections slides closer.

Neil Shea is a former Afghanistan correspondent for Stars and Stripes. Since 2006, he has covered the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for National Geographic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. His Afghanistan reports for the Scholar include “So This Is Paktya” (Summer 2010) and “A Gathering Menace” (Spring 2012).

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