Writing Is Seeing: Ideas and Exercises for Writers

[i wrote this piece for a book of essays on writing by various writers, book published by Penguin]

When I was a very young man at the Clarion Workshop, I was a fan of Rimbaud and of later artistic radicals, like the Surrealists. I liked their brashness and their florid manifestos. One day, when I was exactly that young at the Clarion Writer’s workshop, Harlan Ellison was being encouraging (if that’s the word), and asked me what my writing method was. Aglow with self importance, I arched an eyebrow and looked into the infinite distance with a visionary air and said, “I eat with my eyes; I taste with my ears.” Well, this was pretentious as all Hell, and sounded silly, no doubt, especially as I didn’t know much about writing at the time. However, it turns out that when I think back to the ludicrous behavior of my youth, when I wincingly consider my jejune fancies and mile-a-minute images and insights, I sometimes see, besides boyish foolishness, that I was, after all, quite right–at least about some of it. Being a bit of a misfit, I had nothing to lose, so I just tore open my frontal lobes and let the impressions pour in and the corresponding ideas pour out, with very little preconception. The results were highly uneven — but sometimes, because I didn’t know I could not do a thing, I could do it. And I did. And, in fact, I was right to try to “eat with my eyes” — that is, to look around me without expurgation, with the maximum intake and honesty, with the assumption that the normal way of looking at life is muddied — and that it’s possible to see more, always more if one looks hard enough; if one gets out of the way of perception.

And this has served me. So, I advise writers to do the same: to start with the assumption that they’re not really so conscious as they think they are; not so perceptive as they think they are. To make a conscious, deliberate effort to look at things they are used to and see them in ways they are not used to. Try to see the extraodinary in the mundane — not necessarily the fantastic, but the deeper reality. It is there if you look for it. Don’t use drugs to open your perceptions–just open them.

Look around anywhere, really look, and you can see new characters, possible stories. Be a Sherlock Holmes of characterization. What does that stranger’s distinct choice of clothing mean? Does that man’s reddened knuckles and the bruise on his sad wife’s cheek mean what I think it does? Look closely at her and make an educated guess. How about that man, in the subway—his hand keeps reflexively moving toward his shirt pocket, and drawing back. Is he reaching for cigarettes? Or something else?

My feeling is, a great deal of good writing originates in good observation. It’s people-watching, sure, but it’s also watching nature, it’s absorbing urban, pastoral and suburban settings. It’s trying to see familiar things as you never saw them before.

One key to increasing one’s observation is being aware of the degree of one’s awareness in the first place. When I’m out interacting with the world, how much am I lost in some gray study, in a daydream, or in my smartphone. To what extent am I really inhabiting myself, really seeing…and feeling, smelling, hearing…what’s there? If I turn my attention toward my own level of awareness, I’ll discover that typically I’m not very aware, as I move about the world. I’m dreaming that time away; I’m brooding, or caught in haste, in anxiety, in petty fears. Which means I’m not seeing what’s around me—I haven’t got enough attention left, after all that distraction, to really look at the world I’m in. If I don’t really see, I don’t have material for convincing writing.
Verisimilitude, believability—that’s a key to persuading a reader that what you’re describing is real. Where do you get it? From observation—from observing yourself, people around you, the world around you. To get there, work on being in the moment. Step out of the usual half-aware state we’re too often in. Being “in the moment” helps you see things as they are—and it may bring you insight into the human condition…

Everyone is a character in a novel, in a way. A good writer can find the human dilemma, the human condition, in any situation, because it’s always there if you’re really looking close. Drama is always all around us but usually we don’t see it because we’re not paying attention.

1. Go to a place that’s tediously familiar to you, the supermarket, or the post office, a place, perhaps, where you have to stand in line and normally can’t wait to get away. Deliberately use the time there to practice observing. Turn your attention to people and things around you, as if you’d never seen anything like them before. Pretend you’re from Mars, if you like. “So this is what creatures look like on this planet; so this is how they behave.” The main thing is to see them freshly—and telling details, truths about them, will likely jump out at you. Look freshly at the place as well as the people. As a writer, any environment is a potential setting. Look closely, more closely than your default setting, wherever you are.

2. Are there people in your life who drone on, and you say, “Uh huh…uh huh…” –as you only half listen, at best? Find one! Let them drone on…but this time really listen, no matter how genuinely tiresome it is. Think of it as a sort of homely telepathy—in a sense, you’re actually hearing their free associations, their unconscious concerns, their fears. An example: “I told Bill I didn’t want to go to that doctor again, he always makes me wait, I don’t think his assistant likes me…” What does that boring, self pitying complaint actually say? It says they’re going to the doctor, so they’re worried about their health; it says that it may be that the choice of doctors is in Bill’s hands, whoever he may be; it says they’re a little afraid of the doctor’s assistant, generally worried about being disliked, perhaps even a tad paranoid. It’s an indirect, unconscious statement of fear, of anxiety, and considering the implications might open up your compassion for that person, which might in turn give you insight into them—they, or someone incorporating their attributes, might become a strong character in a story.

3. Go to some place you like going to, perhaps a beach, a trail, the opera, whatever you enjoy—and try to see aspects of it you’d normally filter out, or not notice. Forget about “good” or “bad” –just look for what is. Linger in one spot and look at it more closely than normal. Again, try to see it as if you’d never seen it before. . .You’ll be surprised at how the familiar is also the unfamiliar, and how much a deeper perception of it can enrich your writerly description.

also be sure to copyright your work:

this essay copyright 2013 by John Shirley, all rights reserved


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