Right now in your life, you have stories to tell and a way of telling them unlike anyone else. When you use your own words to tell your truth in your own voice, your writing is strong. Writing can introduce you to more of yourself, illuminate your particular gifts and challenges, put into words your life’s biggest questions and answers, and land you in that wide-awake feeling of being utterly alive. It’s also one of the most democratic of arts. All you need is some paper or a computer screen, a little time, and enough faith, imagination or suspension of disbelief to simply begin. From there, to paraphrase Robert Frost, way leads to way, and words lead to words.
In Kansas where I live, particularly in the western part of the state, the land is curved and lined with beautiful stone fence posts, each one holding the wire fencing from one place to another. We have such fence posts in our lives too: moments, events, occasions that stand as strong posts leading our lives along the same route or turning us new directions. A fence post moment could be something seemingly large and overwhelming, like the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a move to a new city, or the singular moment you decided to change careers. It can also be a quiet moment of meaning for you: perhaps you’re sitting in a lawn chair in your backyard in late spring after mowing the grass for the first time this season, and as you lift a glass of water to your lips, you suddenly realize how much you love the smell of the grass, the light wind, and the cluster of iris blooming.
Fence post moments are the times we want to remember because they changed or reinforced something vital about who we are, how we live, why we’re alive. They can encompass bad vacations with kids throwing up on each other in the backseat while you ascend high altitude roads, Thanksgiving dinners that end with your aunts throwing rolls at your uncles, a small burial service with your best friends for your beloved beagle, the time you tap danced with a small herd of other five-year-olds across a stage while your parents gave you a standing ovation, the first time someone gave you a handful of daffodils or the last time you saw a dear friend.
Here’s an example of a fence post poem, which shows how one moment can illuminate a whole life.
by Raymond Carver
So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
Start your own list of fence post moments, and what you’ll soon find is that one moment makes you recall another one, which brings to mind yet another mind. Keep the list going over days, weeks, even years in a notebook or on a computer. Sometimes when you’re interested in writing but not quite inspired to actually write, list-making can give you a sense of accomplishing something. And by listing your fence post moments, you will be actually accomplishing something: compiling your own writing prompts for the rest of your life.
Now, when you can steal away 10 or 15 minutes, simply look over the list, pluck off one moment that grabs your attention, and without thinking about it first, start writing. Tell the story of that moment, or the story behind the story that made that moment possible. As you’re writing, aim toward sensory experience: what you could see, hear, touch, taste and smell in that fence post moment. The more real you make it, the more you convey what you experienced in its fullness.