Friday 28 August 2015

Precious Presence

EDGE Author Sara Grant Unplugged

Precious presence – It’s something my husband says. I think it’s from some self-help-ish book. I’m not sure which one, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a pithy reminder to be in the moment, which is good advice for me and for the stories that I write.

Precious presence – Sounds simple, but I’m finding it more difficult in real life than ever before. First there’s the blessing and curse of being a writer. I can do my job anywhere. Waiting in the checkout line in the grocery story, I can ponder a sticky plot problem. While falling off to sleep, I can write the best opening to a novel in the history of the world – if only I could remember what it was when I wake up the next morning. I’m never bored. But the flip side of that is that I’m sometimes in my head and not in the world. I’m so busy telling myself stories that I forget to appreciate the wonders around me.

Secondly there’s the never-satisfied hunger of technology. I go to the theatre so excited to watch a play but I have to fight the urge to check my email and then Facebook and Twitter. I’ll check it one last time before I switch off my phone and then just a quick check at intermission. Oh, and have I taken a photo I can post later?

I went to a concert recently where the person in front of me watched the entire concert on the screen of his phone. He was so busy capturing the moment that he wasn’t immersed in it.

And then there’s the urge to plug in. I’ve always found a synergy in writing and walking. Walking gives me distance from a project and time to think. But I often I take my iPhone and listen to music or an audiobook. I realize that I may be stretching my legs but I’m still stuck in my head, letting something entertainment me. Similarly I used to plug into music while travelling. You always see lots of headphoned people on the Tube. But I’ve stopped doing this because it made me feel disconnected. (Also I’ve found some of my best story ideas by eavesdropping and people watching.)

And finally I’m a list maker. I like being busy and I like the satisfying feeling of checking things off
my list. I could check off ‘lunch with friend’ but had I really enjoyed it? Was I mentally cataloguing what I needed to do next instead of really listening and enjoying the meal and my friend? I’m also notorious among my family and friends for talking on the phone while multi-tasking: checking email, emptying the dishwasher or making dinner. I don't do this much anymore because I’ve begun to think multi-task means doing more than one thing but nothing to the best of my ability.

Okay, and here’s where I sound like an old fuddy duddy. I worry about the creativity of future generations. Growing up I spent hundreds of hours playing make-believe. I imagined epic stories for my Barbies that would continue like a soap opera for weeks. I made up games with my sister when we were stuck for eight hours a day in the back of the station wagon on family driving vacations. The neighbor kids and I would play our own version of our favorite TV shows, including Big Valley and Charlie’s Angels. But today I’m as guilty as the next guy of an iPad and iPhone addiction. Will my and future generations' imaginations suffer because we don’t have to entertain ourselves anymore?

When I visit schools, I continue to meet incredibly talented storytellers so I suppose I shouldn’t be concerned. The next great writers are out there. I know it. They may create interactive ebooks or new version of entertainment that my 47-year-old brain can’t even imagine.

Precious presence is important in real life, but it’s also fundamental in fiction. To create a scene writers must evoke all five senses. They must select a few vivid details to bring the scene to life. To do this to the best of my ability, I must get out of my head, off technology and experience the real world. If I’m not absorbed in the moment and endeavouring to experience new things – if I’m not feeding my imagination – how can I ever hope to captivate a reader? 

Sara Grant has worked on both sides of the editorial desk. She has inspired and edited nearly 100 books for children. Her two YA novels – Dark Parties (SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, Europe) and Half Lives – are futuristic thrillers. She also writes a funny magical series for young readers – Magic Trix. Sara is currently developing a new action-adventure series for tweens with Scholastic. She leads writing workshops in the US, UK and Europe as part of Book Bound and guest lectures at the University of Winchester.


  1. This resonates, Sara. I kept thinking, how true! Do you forget real world things, too? Like renewing your son's passport in time for a family holiday? The countryside is (mostly) my saviour: walking in the wind, rain, sun & seasons. And of course my darling dog. He DEMANDS love and attention. A dog definitely keeps one grounded.

  2. Writers need to engage with social media in a way that they never had to before, but it can become so horribly over-whelming and time-consuming! I go to my allotment when I need to find head space away from the trappings and demands of technology! Great post, Sara.