Grist for the Mill

This post was delayed 24 hours due to technical and authorial malfunctions.


Yesterday,  as befits the history major/geek I am, I was witness to history.

Yesterday I became close friends with 1.9 million other people, standing shoulder to shoulder in the pre-dawn cold to witness a moment that will only come once in our lives.

My friends and I got up at Holy Sh*t O’Clock to  ensure that we were on The Mall in Washington DC in time to bear witness to the swearing in of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States.

Why?  Why did I abandon home, heat, comfortable seating, and several pressing deadlines in order to stand in the cold (OMG it was cold) for 6 hours, when I could have seen it better from the convenience of a wide-screen HD television, with hot food and cold beer?

Part of it was that I knew the moment would mean a great deal to me, personally and historically, and watching it from the distance of my own living room would not have the same emotional impact.  And part of it was, just as simply, that I am a writer.  And while historians collect facts and theories, part of being a writer – a storyteller – is the avid collection of the unusual, the unique, the emotionally charged moment.

This was all three.

Thankfully, most collections of this sort require less effort than an Inauguration.  It’s a matter of putting yourself in the way of experiences, of listening when others speak, of welcoming the pain as well as the joy as being of equal value. A child’s birth: a parent’s death.  A raging storm, or the stillness of a hot summer, the quiet of a rural snowfall and the different quiet of a snowfall in the middle of a huge city.  The pangs of love and the embers of hatred.

That’s a difficult thing to do, not surprisingly, and many people don’t see the point.  Collecting experiences requires you to open yourself to those things, not hide from them.  To examine your reactions rather than shutting them in a box.  To embrace the experience, not in and of itself but because you think, somewhere deep inside:  this too, some day, will inform my writing. Sometimes it comes easy – more often the writer needs to train herself to be alert and aware, to collect rather than merely observe.

Because that’s what marks a writer, a storyteller: the endless collection of experiences, the grist for our mill that we then churn into something old-yet-new, shiny and yet recognizable to the reader when it comes out again on the page.

“Will the cute FBI agent make it into one of your books?” a blog-reader asked me when I was telling our adventures of the day.

“Not this book,” I replied.  “But someday, yeah.”  Some day there will be a government agent who was both helpful and useless, official and friendly, and made me feel like he was a potential ally, not an adversary.

It’s a gift, a wonderful gift, to collect so many varied moments, to be filled with such experiences.  But there is a danger there, too, a line that shouldn’t be crossed; the danger that we give ourselves over to the experience, chase it for the sense of exhilaration or adrenaline, and forget that it’s there to be built on as well.  We can lose ourselves there, in the endless replay of the moment, or the instant chase after something newer, more powerful.

Because, in the end, when the memories of others begin to fade and dry, or details are lost and what was once important becomes overlaid with other, newer things, the writer exists to bring it back.  Not the exact moment, but the magic, the emotions, the moment of revelation and realization.  We are kin to historians, the other side of the coin.  We will not ask you to remember dates or figures, but the emotion of a moment, whatever that moment may have been.

So now I ask you to look back over your experiences of January 20th, 2009.  Where were you?  What emotion did you experience, that has been collected and held?  How did you share it?  What will you do with it?

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  1. 1. Keith R.A. DeCandido

    Well said.

    (Having said that, I was quite moved watching it from the warmth of my living room. I even stood up when he took the oath of office….)

  2. 2. Laura Anne

    There was a lot of bitter but amused laughter every time the speaker said “you may be seated” or “please take your seats,” since, um, no seats. And even if we’d thought to bring blankets, the ground was too cold to even consider sitting down on.

    The sales of coffee and hot chocolate at local cafes was probably the largest money-maker in DC all day.

  3. 3. Tim of Angle

    Reminded me of watching Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, except that the poetry wasn’t as good and there weren’t as many uniforms. God help the United States.

  4. 4. Joe Iriarte

    :rolleyes: @ Tim


    Very cool. I wish I could have been there too.

    Also, I totally identify with what you said about collecting experiences. My wife and I pal around with another couple that always comments on the surprisingly diverse things we’ve done, and who compliment us on all that we’re exposing our children to. That’s great and all, but we’re not doing it for the kids; we’re doing it for ourselves. We collect experiences exactly how you described. In fact, I’ve started telling people that I don’t want more things for my birthday, anniversary, Christmas . . . instead I want experiences. One year my wife paid for me to ride along in a race car at the Richard Petty Experience. Last year I took her on a fireworks cruise on one of the lakes at Disney World. When I can make the logistics work out, I plan on giving her shooting classes at a local range.

    All of this means more to me than some object that will collect dust in some forgotten corner. I can always draw on the places I’ve been and the things I’ve experienced.

  5. 5. David J. Williams

    @Tim: let me guess, you experienced no such emotions watching the same spectacle back in 2005?. . color me not-surprised-in-the-slightest.

    @ LAG: very cool post.

  6. 6. Kirk Hoffman

    It was a fantastic moment.

    I am NOT a history major/geek. The driving motivation for going was that, for the first time in my adult life (now being 38), the presidential political process seemed to actually inspire hope! Sad, but incredible. How could I not be there?

    My blog has a post about my experience of that day:

    And yes, moments such as a post-Inauguration milling back-and-forth on the Mall, looking for an exit that wasn’t presenting itself, is definitely something that I might use in writing someday.

  7. 7. Laura Anne

    @Kirk — I’m glad you were able to get directions when you were wandering — our experiences with DC police were…not quite so good. I did my blogging at, with photos in follow-up posts, if you’re interested.

  8. 8. Laura Anne

    (drat, the link doesn’t seem to be working. and look for the post titled “Liveblogging interrupted”)

  9. 9. peacerenity

    i always feel like such an outsider when writers start talking politics, because the vast majority of writers are unfailingly liberal, while i am a republican who leans libertarian. and it’s interesting, because when you think about it, being a writer is one of the most self-reliant professions that there is: there is none of the ephemeral “we” that democrats so often reference, there is just you and your words. the essential assistants to the writer: the agent, the editor, the publisher, the bookseller, are helping you because they make money by doing so, not because they think that you deserve to have a book published. the reader is the consumer who holds power over all of these people. yet for some reason, when books tank, our first instinct is to blame the publisher for not getting behind our books, to blame the corporate machine for our personal failure. we’d rather believe that the publisher has all the power or that the deciding factor in a book’s success is luck rather than assume the responsibility of accepting the fact that 90% of a book’s success lies within its pages.

    perhaps the political affiliations of writers has something to do with idealism. as a writer, we are constantly creating worlds that exist as we wish they were. politically, the democratic party is the closest aligned with that view. it is the one that takes the most straightforward view to helping people: if people are poor , throw money at them, etc. i don’t know, im not a political analyst.

  10. 10. Kelly McCullough

    peacerenity, I suspect that it has much more to do with the fact that to be a successful writer you have to be able to get inside other people’s heads. It’s very hard to succeed in this business without a serious helping of empathy, and it’s much harder to ignore the problems of others and avoid helping them if you’ve been able to put yourself in their shoes.

Author Information

Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman worked for fifteen years in the mines of NYC publishing before deciding that she would have less stress -- if fewer benefits -- working for herself. She's still debating if not having to attend meetings was worth the loss of benefits, but other than that, ten books [and counting] later, she thinks that the decision was a good one. She is the author of the urban fantasy "Retrievers" series for Luna, the forthcoming PSI novels, also from Luna, and FLESH & FIRE: BOOK 1 OF THE VINEART WAR, coming from Pocket Books this October. Visit site.



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