To be a writer, you have to pay attention – to the particular way new couples hold hands, to how cake breaks apart in your plate, to how impatience materializes, slowly, on a lone commuter's face. It means keeping up with the world: its refugee crisis, the growing waves of xenophobia, the Internet's obsession with cats, etc. That political and social awareness, of the big and small, serious and silly, informs the work and makes it meaningful.
We can’t make art if we’re not paying attention, and we can’t make art if we’re not being honest with ourselves about what we believe about the way things are.
And though I’ve had a shy, quiet personality that’s lent itself well to this sort of detached observance of the world, it was also taught to me by my mother. She taught me to pay attention.
If you don’t already remember from being a child, when someone tells you something you’re still too young to understand, your mind often stores it for later. Eventually, if you're lucky, this little index card will fly out of its resting place all on its own, because the time’s come for you to understand that incomprehensible thing that was said to you so many years ago.
As a teenager, this happened to me often with the things my mother had said to me as a little girl.
One memory I remember vividly takes place in the grocery store. I was in grade three or four, and with my little sister, we stood in line at the cash register. My mother stopped, bent down, and half-pointed to a disheveled woman picking out a chocolate bar in the aisle over. My mother said, “See, her, that’s an alcoholic. Do you see how she walks, what her eyes look like, very glazed. That’s an alcoholic.”
I suppose parents are tasked with the responsibility of showing to their children the world. My mother did that, the good and the bad.
Another memory I have: of having written the very first edition to my newspaper. I was maybe seven or eight years old. Excitedly, I showed it to her, who read it from beginning to end, and said, “It’s very nice, Sofia. You did a good job. But nothing bad happens in your paper. It’s all good news. In a real newspaper, bad things happen.”
I was crushed. But dutifully, I rewrote it to include murders and thievery and, if I remember correctly, a vampire attack.
One last memory – of being seven, lying on the carpeted floor of our basement living room, listening to The Backstreet Boys with my eyes shut and mouthing the words to, “I’ll never break your heart.” My mother interrupts to inform me that I have to be careful, that boys always tell you that but then they go and break your heart anyway.
I was crushed, and also secretly convinced that my mother didn’t know what she was talking about.
But with age, I've come to appreciate my mother's honesty, her brutal allegiance to the truth (she once casually mentioned in a car ride that she thought I was perfect in every way except that she wished I'd grown to be an inch or two taller; I'm 5'2). It's made me harder where it counts, and in other ways, softer & more sensitive towards others.
I do wonder sometimes, if it weren't for these early lessons in the art of observation and truth-saying, if I'd be writing at all, or in any case, any good at it.