Writers are Observers

cropped rainbow
The rain storms over the past week have lit up our sky with rainbows. Many of them have been perfect arches in full vibrant colours crisply delineated. Some have been double rainbows.

When I was standing in the park photographing this rainbow last week I was only dimly aware of what was going on around me. Then I heard a low rumble and looked up. The clouds were purple and black. A cold gust, the wind that comes before a downpour, blew my hair back into my face. I smelt the clean of damp earth. I ran for the safety of the veranda but my body was pelted with large cold drops that shivered down my scalp.

While the photo shows what I saw, it was only a part of my experience. The colours and magic of the rainbows were beautiful, but it was the whole exhilarating experience that excited me. The smell of rain and the huge drops, the sound of thunder, the force of the wind, the cold, and the trepidation and thrill of being caught in a storm.

Sight is often our dominate sense but when we use our whole body and mind to attend to and experience our daily lives we go beyond the ordinary way of seeing and being.

The writers I admire most have this ability to take me into the whole experience. See my last post Expanding the Moment for examples of the work of two writers that achieve this.

They take me into the experience they’re describing as if I’m right there right now. They write with brilliant skill, but it’s more than that. It’s their ability to pay attention to the small details, to actually experience directly and intimately, and then express, not what they think is there, but what actually is. This is what absorbs me into the world they’ve created. This is what makes me feel as if I’m right there with the characters.

A few people may naturally have a highly developed sense of observation. Most of us, though, need to consciously practise to hone this skill.

Here are two exercises I found helpful.

1. Go somewhere, to a café or park. Write for 15 minutes without stopping. Write what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Don’t write about your feelings or thoughts or what your opinion and judgements are. Write about the colours and shapes. The smell of coffee, the taste of Greek shortbreads.

This exercise will connect you to the here and now. It’s a sensory exploration of the specific place you are in at that particular time. It will force you to really pay attention to details you may never have noticed before, or that weren’t quite as you believed them to be.

2. Take an ordinary object. Experience its physical existence, without naming, analysing, judging or evaluating it. Just feel it. See it. Touch it. Experience it without the mind moving. When you find your mind moving, acknowledge the thought, let it go, and come back to the object.

This exercise comes from John Daido Loori’s book The Zen of Creativity. The more you practise this exercise the more you’ll develop the ability to experience things directly, without evaluation. You’ll be able to just see, hear, feel, taste, smell.

And, as your attentiveness and awareness increase with this practice, you will notice little things that you have been seeing every day but barely noticed in passing.

Because ultimately we want our readers to lose themselves in our world, to experience exactly what it’s like for our characters to have this experience at this particular time in this specific place. To make our readers feel they are there.

T S Eliot expressed it perfectly:

“Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music.”

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10 Responses to Writers are Observers

  1. Mandi says:

    Beautifully written post. Thank you.

  2. subroto says:

    That last line by TS Eliot reminded me of the lines from Keat’s Ode to a Grecian Urn
    “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;”

    The two writing exercises sound intriguing. It is important to have a descriptive voice than just writing banal descriptions. I think I will be trying them out.

    • Hi Subroto. Keat’s words are the perfectly compliment to TS Eliots’. Thanks for sharing them here.
      I really enjoy doing those two exercises. They expand my world and that carries on into my writing. I agree there’s nothing worse than banal description. Description should do so much more than just describe.
      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Life – and powerful writing – really can be in the details. The exercises are ones I find useful, too, especially if I’ve no story waiting to break free.

    I was at the beach one evening last week. I had my camera, and took several photos. The waves were bouncing and spitting, the wind was blustery. The photos showed the effect of the wind and the water movement, but not how it felt to be there and a part of it all.

    I so wanted to capture the scent of the sea and the tug of the wind – and how alive they made me feel – within the photo. But only words could tune me into that ‘essen’ce. That’s why I need to write. 🙂

    Another great post, Karen! 🙂

    • I know exactly what you mean about how difficult it is to capture the whole sensory experience – the ‘essence’ – in a photograph, and so that’s why you write. What I found fascinating about John Daido Loori was that he was a photographer and he was able to capture it beautifully through his photos. He spent hours ‘experiencing’ what he wanted to photograph. On photographing a sunset he said”we may have to turn the camera away from the sunset and photograph our big toes, or some other image that evokes the totality of the experience of the sunset.” I’ve been experimenting over the last month and I think I’ve got one photo that does capture the totality of an Australian spring afternoon. Or it does for me anyway. But like you, I feel much more comfortable with words.
      I loved reading your comment, Joanna. Thank you.

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