The First Keys


I have to say I burst out laughing when I came across the first sentence of mine to make it into print. I was in a rare sorting and hurling mood and there it was in a notebook of newspaper clippings I’d kept–nine words, every one of them wasted:

“The moment of reality is always immediate to comprehension.”

Say what?

You don’t have to be a writer to know that everything is wrong with that sentence. For one thing, there is no meaning in it. And there are no images. There is nothing but a lost chance.

Cicely Tyson took that kind of fluffle out of me in two hours. I interviewed her when she was a participant in the Salt Lake Film Festival (it later became the Sundance Film Festival). By then she’d won an Emmy and had been nominated for an Academy Award. Oh yes, I was intimidated, but I jumped in.

The first thing I did was thank her for coming to Utah. She knew what I meant—knew I meant thank you for forgiving the Mormon Church its past policies toward Blacks. “It was the only thing that drove me to come,” she told me when I was through with my own mumblings about the issue that had kept me from feeling at home in Utah. “I understand,” she said in a barely audible voice. There were tears on both sides of those words.

She went on to talk about the role she had played a few years earlier in, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitmann.” I listened as earnestly as I’d ever listened to anyone. Of course she was riveting, but she also made beautiful sense.

“I had to age my body eighty years for that role,” she said. “And what did I have to work with? My God, I wish I could be this person—that’s what I said to myself, become this person.”  She combined intensity and composure in a way I’d never seen. “And the key? Go back to your only keys—the five senses.”

She named them–called them out as though they were holy words. Her elegant hands and painted nails played their part, stressing, emphasizing. She was deliberate. She made deliberate a potent virtue.

“Sight. Feel. Smell. Sound. Touch. Keep them at your fingertips. Even this thumb,” and she extended her hand so that it was most prominent, “even this thumb had to be old. How was I going to do that? The keys at my fingertips—the five senses. I asked myself how this thumb is going to look at 110, how is it going to feel.”

I went home and made a list of the five senses. I was particularly intrigued because I had been reading about how the mind learns. It isn’t an abstract process, scientists were saying. The data we take in comes to us through the senses. And yes, sure, I was aware that writing should be vigorously connected to the physical world, but it had never been so clear to me. Listening to her, I could see how to do it.

I taped my list to my typewriter. It was ragged by the time it got to a computer. It stayed there until those five words were the first keys for me too.



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