Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Importance of Being Observant

(Okay, first, did anyone get my pun? It has to do with the movie. Of course if you never watched the movie, it might not make much sense...Um. Yeah. Nevermind.)

Moving is like cleaning. Except ten times worse. Recently I had to go through all my junk and figure out what I wanted to take with me, as a transfer student with a small apartment, to College By the Sea. Parts of it are fun, though. It’s like time traveling through your own past. This was when you collected china cows. This was when you considered becoming a freelance journalist. This is when you were depressed for a year and wrote all those awful poems.

I had an entire bin filled with writerly stuff, most of it scribbled on torn scraps of paper, or stuck in color-coded folders. (The more I liked the color of a folder, the better the material I put in there.) Most of it I threw away—half the point of moving—but some of it impressed me. Like this:

“It was spring, and if she stood still out on the lawn, she could hear it popping softly.”

I wrote that on a scrap of paper. Do lawns pop? Re-reading the note while packing, I couldn’t remember. It struck me as fascinating that past-me had been so observant as to capture something that future-me couldn’t remember, even when reminded.

After thinking about it, I did end up remembering what the note was about. One day I had gone outside to intentionally document the season I was in—spring—so I could write about it when it was, say, winter, and still get the details right. The lawn was wet and mushy. As it thawed, little air bubbles worked their way to the surface. If you stood quietly, you could hear them popping.

Wow, right? Those are the kind of details everyone says we need to put in your writing. You know, engaged the five senses, use setting as a character, keep it fresh.

I am pretty proud of past-me for noticing the lawn-bubble thing. I am a little shamed with future, current-me, because when I am wracking my brain for descriptive material, I tend to think of either A) Stuff I have seen in movies, B) Stuff I’ve read in other books, or C) Stuff I’ve already written. And then I try to make that fresh.

I do remember as a newish writer being very diligent about carrying a notebook with me, jotting down useless stuff I saw. But nowadays I rarely go out intending to research. If I’m writing a scene in a grocery store, I will write about it from memory. From whatever material I have in my creative well. You know what I mean? I’m not hopping in my car for the nearest grocery store unless it’s crucial that I know the exact way a checkout aisle works, or something. I’m guessing this is pretty much how we all handle it.

And I’ll be honest: I don’t advocate elitist kind of research. It’s great as an exercise, but it’s not something (most) people (ahem) can sustain long-term.

Bottom line: if we’re not intentionally going off to observe, then we need to be intentional about observing. Right? I mean, writers are different in that everything we do is research. If we want to make our writing convincing, those little details matter. But two people can go on the same walk, be in the same room, have the same experience, and not notice the same things. We need to make a point of noticing.

I say this partly to myself, out of conviction. I realized that I’m not as intentionally observant as I used to be, and that also, I often rely too heavily on movies and TV because I liked the way they interpreted things.

But secondly, I say this because it’s an easy thing to forget. That intentionality. Being a writer is great, and it comes with a lot of gorgeous communities—the blogosphere, the writing forums, retreats, conferences, tours, the coffeehouse and Panera breads, the writing groups and critique groups and programs—all these people. And we all share our inspiration, sparking someone else, who inspires someone after them. Ideas can get kind of over-processed as a result. The element of real goes missing.

So, sometimes it’s important to remember that our job isn’t just making stuff up, but capturing what’s real, and putting it in a way readers might never have themselves, but that rings true anyway.

Being “intentional” is such an individual thing, that I’m curious: how do you guys go about being intentional about observing? Do you carry notebooks? Or are you not that intentional, just generally try to be observant as you can? What do you think about the whole thing?

(And I’m really curious: has anyone else ever heard their lawns pop? Ever?)

Truly and always,
-Creative A

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