OBSERVATION: watching, surveillance, scrutiny, inspection, examination, study
Glynna here! Today, as you read this, I’ll be winging my way home from five days of job-related travel. My schedule will have been jam-packed with early rises and late-to-beds, waiting in lines, catching flights, taxi rides, workshops, and meeting with colleagues. I’ll have pretty much been held captive during my waking hours. There won’t be much, if any, time to work on my latest WIP. But what there WILL be are snatches of time for “power observation” – opportunities to enhance and enrich my writing while in my “hostage” state.
When taking a college creative writing course years ago, the professor challenged my small class to spend an hour outside during the week to write down, non-stop, our observations of those settings. An entire hour? Wouldn’t 15 minutes be sufficient? Blue sky. Green trees. Mostly green grass. That should cover it.
Nevertheless, I committed to an hour and selected as my observation point a tree-studded “green” on my small, Iowa campus. Initially I recorded the obvious—what I saw. But as the minutes passed, I became more conscious of the nuances of my surroundings and began to record at a deeper level than merely the visual—what I heard, smelled, touched, tasted. The drone of a plane overhead. The pungent fragrance of freshly mown grass. The softness of a dandelion’s sunny bloom. The taste of my cinnamon gum.
As my senses reached out to my surroundings, memories tied meaning to each. The plane reminded me of my pilot grandfather and the time he’d taken me up to circle over the small Midwestern town my family lived in for generations. The dandelion and freshly mown grass vividly evoked an afternoon in high school when I dug dandelions out of the yard with my mother. And the cinnamon gum took me back to my grandma’s kitchen pantry. Observation, deep observation with all my senses, had taken me far beyond blue sky and green grass. It tapped into memories and emotions that enriched the superficialities of my writing with evocative detail.
Remarkably, my memory can still take me straight back to that hour of observation when I deliberately, consciously, experienced my surroundings. It seems we do so little of that as writers and lose a valuable opportunity to layer and enrich our writing with detail that taps into shared memories and experiences of our readers. Haven’t you too-often picked up a book where, even though the writer told you where a scene was set, you couldn’t envision it? You didn’t hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, experience it? The characters marched in front of a bland, cardboard background spouting dialogue. Or maybe it’s the characters themselves who are transparent, blending into the surroundings, not coming alive in your imagination because there are no illuminating details.
While I won’t have had time to write much more than notes these past few days, I guarantee you I will have been indulging in “power observation.” Watching people at a deeper level, mentally (and sometimes literally) recording impressions of my surroundings. Tapping into emotions and memories that I can transfer to my writing. Details, details, details—they can make a character or a setting come alive.
This week I’d like to challenge YOU to pick a setting, settle yourself down, and take the time to observe with ALL your senses. Then afterwards, look over your notes. Think about how this setting would appear in an altered EMOTIONAL state. If you observed the setting while happy and relaxed, consider how an agitated or grief stricken condition might affect your observations. Would the surrounding beauty of nature mock you? Would you even be aware of the beauty painted above you in the azure sky, or would you be too focused on bare patches among the weed-infested grass? Would the tangy scent of a bright yellow dandelion be a sunny souvenir of childhood days--or would it be an unwelcome reminder of a darker nature?
Give it a try, and see if indulging in some focused “power observation” will stir up details that will awaken both your characters and their surroundings.