The Art of Seeing

Everystockphoto_193921_mA writer is nothing without ideas.

Ideas are so important to our craft that I do a whole class on them.

Where do ideas come from?

One place they come from is observation.  Which means the ability to see is vital to the writer.

Here's the deal: we get wrapped up in our stuff really easily.  I do it, you do it, we all do it.  And when we're wrapped up in our own stuff, that means we're not observing the world.  We're not seeing.  And thus we're not allowing new ideas to filter in.

So if the art of seeing becomes an important creative act, how do we encourage ourselves to do so?  I have some guidelines:

1.  Be present. Yeah, yeah, a no-brainer.  But how present are you as you move through your daily activities? Are you awake and aware or going through the motions?  Being present to your life can make the difference between sleep-walking through it or gathering all kinds of ideas for writing.

2.  Change things up. Do you drive to work the exact same way every day and see the same things? Visit the same cafe for lunch all the time?  Try something new!  Maybe you can't take a vacation at this exact moment but you can take mini-vacations by changing up your daily routine.

3.  Observe in categories.  Writers need to know things–like what noses look like and how hairdos work.  We need to understand details so that we can write details.  So assign yourself categories to observe–shoes, cars, dialogue–and write down what you find.

4. Listen.  Too often we get so wound up in what we're saying we're not listening.  Or, while another person is talking, we're planning what we're going to say.  That's not listening and it's not being present.  Try relaxing and really listening and see what happens.

5.  Get over yourself.  You're great.  I know you are.  But when it comes to the art of seeing, check your ego at the door, as the saying goes.  You can remind yourself later, when you're back at home with a pocketful of ideas, how great you are.  (Or, the flip side of this coin–how nervous you were being out in the world observing.)

6.  Write down what you see.  Obvious.  But maybe not.  Don't depend on your faulty memory to remind yourself of that great observation about what taxicabs look like.  Because you brain won't remember.  Trust me.  Write stuff down.

7.  Practice remembering.  This is for the times when  you can't write stuff down.  Years ago, I remember hearing about a famous journalist–Tom Wolfe? Joan Didion? I can't recall–who, when on a story, took no notes.  He or she had appointments, did interviews, went through her day and when she returned to her hotel room at night sat at the typewriter (it was a long time ago) and wrote down everything she saw and heard.  Now that's practicing memory skills.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Take yourself out on an observation date right now (or as soon as possible).  Grab your journal, hit the nearest coffee shop, and see.

Please comment!  What are your favorite tricks for seeing and remembering details?

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2 Responses to The Art of Seeing

  1. Jessica Baverstock 04/27/2012 at 17:26 #

    I love this list! Full of great reminders.

    It’s so important to write things down, as the details of a description fade after a while and you lose important nuances.

    I think one of the most valuable things a writer can own is a collection of descriptions. They will always come in handy.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 04/30/2012 at 10:29 #

    Thanks, Jessica.  I agree, you'll never regret writing things down!

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