"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Quote of the Day: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Over winter break I got a chance to see the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Besides confirming my dream of one day traveling to Iceland, it was also a beautiful movie to watch, and it was superbly acted by all those involved. This film is full of memorable quotes, from the funny ("You know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore. Not you.") to the profound ("Beautiful things don't ask for attention."), and of course it's hard to overlook the "motto" of the film (And of Life Magazine): "To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the meaning of life."But the quote that struck me the most was something said in a conversation between Walter Mitty and the photographer Sean O'Connell.

They are on a mountaintop, watching a snow leopard that Sean is trying to photograph.

Walter Mitty: Are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.

Those few lines of dialogue hit me right in the stomach. There, sitting in the dark movie theatre, I thought of my phone nestled in my purse. I hadn't turned it off; it was still on vibrate. I could feel every e-mail, every text message I received. The same was probably true for everyone in the theatre.

I come from a family of photographers. We record everything, from Christmas and birthdays to visits to our favorite coffee shop. We once spent a good chunk of a family dinner showing my Uncle how to use Instagram. Don't get me wrong. I love taking pictures. I love documenting little moments, enhancing them with filters, and the thrill of sending them out into the world. I love film photography, too. The smell of chemicals, the feel of developer on your fingers. I love that the stakes are higher, and that it forces you to be thoughtful at every stage in the process. As a writer, I am a recordist by nature. Every moment is trapped, filtered, and congealed on the page, but words still pale in comparison to the actual experience.

That little moment in Walter Mitty made me reevaluate the way I was living my life. It reminded me that not all moments have to be recorded in order for them to be meaningful. The most powerful memories can only happen when you are fully present. Sure, I'm glad I have so many instagram photos, but there's a certain kind of comfort that comes with knowing I wasn't distracted during the experiences that meant the most to me. Things like standing on the stage at Carnegie hall, or having Thanksgiving dinner in Ireland with my family in the 7th grade. Things like that don't need to be validated by a photograph or even a poem or a short story. They just are.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is full of messages like this one. It's a movie about going into the unknown and facing your fears. It's about living life to the fullest and not letting yourself fall into the trap of dreaming but never doing. In a world where everything is vying for our attention, I think we could all learn to be a little bit more choosy about what we let ourselves get distracted by, and inevitably, what we're missing.

Afterthoughts: I don't want anyone to think that after seeing this film I suddenly gave up instagram (or facebook or youtube or one of myriad other distractions). Sean O'Connell's words (or, really, his character's words) simply inspired me to think (and write) about this subject. My goal is to find a balance between capturing moments and experiencing them.

I hope you found this post interesting, and if you have thoughts on Walter Mitty, photography, or anything discussed above, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. This post is part of a sporadic series that I started a while back, where I take a closer look at the quotes that resonate with me. You can read the first of this series, here. As always, thanks for reading!


  1. I haven't seen the movie yet, but plan to. I liked the short story as a kid--I know the movie and story are not-at-all alike...and I think I'll like that quite a bit. I like Ben Stiller a lot, and why I haven't seen the movie, yet, is beyond me.

    As far as choosing what to allow as distractions, you know I'm a fan of stepping away from social media. I'm taking another break--not even sure when I'll go back with this one. It's clear each time I take a break that I don't miss it. Previous breaks, there was some sense of anxiety by not engaging in the habit, but this break is different: those feelings never hit. It took all of two or three days to get back into the habit of better writing and focus...and appreciating what I allow to fill space in my head. The little bits I've seen on Facebook and other places through my wife and family and friends is plenty...and a reminder of how pervasive online connection is. I'll visit someone and they'll say, "Crazy about so-and-so, huh?" and then realize I have no idea what they're talking about because I didn't see so-and-so's Facebook update. Really, the only thing I miss is Tumblr.

    I know I'm a bit extreme with this (I don't even watch news anymore...I don't even like checking weather on weather.com because the site is full of sensational things that rarely even have to do with weather), but with each break comes a sense of calm and better writing.

    Hope all you write in 2014 is great!

  2. the good writing techniques make you good human being. Writing is that art which is like a sea how many you write the words are many more produce. The quotes are good and short form of writing which is concerning the incident of life ups and downs.These quotes are forever remembered. If you wish to inquire from me my favorite quotes then i provide this....
    quotes about life

  3. Thanks for sharing your emotional response to the powerful "Take the picture!" scene in the movie, Mitty. What you wrote about the most powerful memories only happening when we are fully present hit the nail squarely on the head. It's all about being present, of course, extending the "Wow!" times in our lives for as long as possible, which is what very young children do naturally because their egos haven't developed to a point where they have to compulsively barge in as soon as possible to wrest control and take us out of the moment, out of the NOW, turning it into just another stepping-stone to the future, into a non-moment. That's what LIFE photographer Sean meant in the movie when he told Mitty, "I just want to stay in it." In the wonder of the moment, the only moment any of us ever have: "Right here," in photographer Sean's words. I'd just like to add, Laura, I think you're a writer beyond your tender years. Better yet, you seem far wiser than your very young age should permit. So I applaud your insightful observation that "not all moments have to be recorded in order for them to be meaningful." Not ANY moments, actually. I wish you the rest of a very long life--not trapping and filtering the moments, as you put it, but rediscovering over and over, in your own words, that "the most powerful memories can only happen when you are fully present." Lionel

    1. Lionel,
      Thank you so much for you kind comment! The Secret Life of Walter Mitty really resonated with me, and I'm glad I was able to write something that made you want to share your thoughts. I will definitely continue writing!

      Best Wishes,

  4. I love this movie and it sends out a great message. The other day I was running and I came to a lookout at sunset and all around me was this beautiful pink and orange cloudy sky with the lighthouse and the beautiful beach next to it and I was so bummed because I didn't have my camera or phone but my phone would have been a huge distraction with sending out snapchats and instagram photos. Instead I was in the moment like Sean Connery said :). It was the most amazing thing and to top it off there was a whale sticking up out of the water now and then. I wish I could refrain from my camera but I love capturing the moments too much!

    1. Rebecca, thanks so much for sharing! I'm still struggling with the same issues of when to capture and when not to. I, too, get that feeling of disappointment when I'm caught off guard by a beautiful sunset and I don't have anything to capture it with. I think it's all about balance. Now, I try to take a couple photos first thing and then put my phone away and enjoy the moment. There will ALWAYS be more time for sharing, but you'll never be able to re-live this moment in its entirety. Also, that scenery sounds amazing! What an awesome experience! (Randomly, your comment also made me think of the movie Boyhood, with its theme of being present. I remember watching the last scene, where they are watching the sun set over Big Bend National Park, and immediately after the movie ended the group of people I was with pulled out their phones to respond to text messages and check Facebook. The credits hadn't even finished rolling. Yes, I realize the movie was like 3 hours long, but I couldn't help wondering if we'd even seen the same film. How can you pull your phone out after something like that?!) Rant over! Thanks again for your comment!