Every Thanksgiving for the past several years, in between assembling the sweet potato casserole, I've written. Thanksgiving Day is a writing trigger, for me anyway, which means I find myself wanting to – no, make that feeling forced to – write something. I've talked before on the blog about memory triggers, but to me a writing trigger is something different.
A memory trigger is some object or situation, some visual or aural stimulus, something you experience or witness which usually takes you by surprise and catapults you back to a time in the past which pries loose a memory. Memory triggers are extremely useful to memoir and personal essay writers, who usually stumble into them, or could actively go in search of a trigger.
For me, a writing trigger is something else -- almost always a situation, experience or sensory input (hardly ever a physical object) which causes me to want to write something very specific.
Thanksgiving day, for example, with its confluence of gathered extended family members who don't know one another that well and therefore often engage in stilted, odd or upsetting conversations, is one of my writing triggers; I know that before the pumpkin pie, I will excuse myself (yes, often to the spare rest room, notebook carefully concealed), and I will write about something specific. There is a different quality to this writing – it's not just a list or the collage of random notes and thoughts I jot down when hit with a memory trigger. What I write when confronted with a writing trigger is almost always more formed, more directed, and more linear.
Some of my other writing triggers are:
- long car or train rides through terrain different from my usual suburban views (mountains, beaches, farms)
– weddings and graduations
– listening to the musicians I loved (and who "spoke to me") during my high school or college years
– reading about someone who advocates for a child with special needs
– the smell of New York City train stations
– the Las Vegas skyline from above just before landing
– news of, or meeting up with, old friends from the horse show world
– running into someone who once knew my late father, especially someone who knew him as a young man
– a long walk, usually when I'm away from home
– waking up from a nap in an unfamiliar place (hotel room, friend's house)
– a long, nonstop, night time flight
– any B/W movie which evokes my parents going out in the evening when I was a child
– a visit to the cemetery.
Writing triggers are more personal than memory triggers. A horse show ribbon I find in the attic while looking for something else can remind me of riding, but only running into a riding buddy I haven't seen in 25 years will have me thinking (and writing) once again about how horses influenced my life. Any scrap of mid-1970s music might get me reminiscing about high school, but only listening to the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder can get me thinking (and writing) about what it felt like to sit out the senior prom because my black boyfriend wouldn't be welcomed.
Sometimes I like knowing a writing trigger event is approaching, especially if I've been in a writing rut (or drought); but other times it's a bit annoying (maybe I'd like to watch the dumb in-flight movie, but I know I'll be writing). I often wonder if other writers also have – or recognize – these triggers which spur writing, and view them as different from random memory triggers. Other times I think I shouldn't analyze it all too carefully, and just be grateful about anything which aids the writing process.
Today is a good day to be grateful.