Like an Animal Turning his Mill

From a letter Samuel R. Delany wrote to Robert S. Bravard in 1984 -- I'm excerpting it from a collection of Delany's letters titled 1984:

"Frank says to me, at least once a month, 'Chip, don't you ever think about anything except writing?' Well, the truth is, since I was a teenager, I haven't. Most of what I think about, I certainly think of in terms of writing, either directly or indirectly. Just to walk down the street means to me a series of visual, olfactory, and auditory experiences, some of which I know I can write about with a fair degree of accuracy and immediacy, and some of which I realize as I encounter them I'd have difficulty articulating. And the upsetting experiences, the ones I dwell on, the ones that obsess me, are not the dramatic ones in any sense, but simply the latter."

Notoriously, the question writers are most fed up of being asked is, "Where do you get your ideas from?" If story ideas are what you're most determined to find, you'll end up seeing the damn things everywhere you look -- they may finally even obstruct your vision of what else there is to see. The title of this blog post comes from the letter Claude Monet wrote to George Clemenceau, about the death of Monet's wife:

"One day, when I was at the death bed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself, my eyes fixed on her tragic forehead, in the act of mechanically analysing the succession of appropriate color gradations which death was imposing on her immobile face. Tones of blue, of yellow, of grey, what have you? This is the point I had reached. Certainly it was natural to wish to record the last image of a woman who was departing forever. But even before I had the idea of setting down the features to which I was so deeply attached, my organism automatically reacted to the color stimuli, and my reflexes caught me up in spite of myself, in an unconscious operation which was the daily course of my life -- just like an animal turning his mill."

Actors have such moments too, as do salespeople -- a salesperson told me once, "Everything in life is sales, getting a job, getting married, everything," and she seemed happy about this insight, even borderline triumphant. So I suppose we all have a mill to turn -- perhaps this woman will experience death as just another sale.

1 thought on “Like an Animal Turning his Mill”

  1. All the more valuable are the ways that make us alter the way we think — a way to switch gears of that mill 🙂 Travel, reading different types of texts, getting a new job. Having practiced Professional Selling in college (and selling life insurance for a spell afterward), I am very much aware that each sales job comes with a full alternative narrative about the world and your place in it, and the better you're at sales, the more fully you accept the narrative.

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