Tuesday July 06, 2010 @ 12:46 PM (UTC)

One of the first things I learned in writing school was to watch more closely. My first advisor in graduate school (and author of the upcoming MFA in a Box), John Rember, pointed out to me that being a writer is not just writing: it’s how you see the world.

Before I went to grad school, I already loved little idiosyncratic details. I loved noticing how one thing was so unexpectedly like another, and deploying that likeness in prose to give someone a jolt of recognition. I loved stealing a gesture from a passerby and teasing it out into a character. But I more or less relied on those details to come to me. I wrote things down when I noticed them, but I didn’t go out into the world, eyes open, ears pricked and (figurative) antennae agape in order to gather them. Now I do.

A few things I have noticed recently:

  • A lone strawberry sitting in the road on a rural highway, pointing up like a caltrop.
  • A man in an workman’s orange vest sitting on a traffic control box he had scaled with the help of a nearby stepladder. He was holding a package and apparently doing nothing.
  • Teenage girls in summer dresses stealing a series of appraising glances at disreputably attired young men getting out of a van next to a venue (and thus, presumably, in a band).
  • A highly-polished Jaguar in a shade of gold so extreme as to resemble baby poop, with scythed wheels.
  • A petite woman in silver shoes and a sequined tunic posing motionless for a long time while her photographer fiddled with his camera.
  • A man in baggy khakis and a burgundy polo crossing Terwilliger to stare fixedly into the sloping forest. He looked exactly like Bill Gates.
  • Lanky siblings, long and slender with their teenage growth, cramming themselves onto swings and seesaws at the park and trading insults and boasts. Their hair was a light fine blond, like toddlers’, but their brows were dark and straight.

These are the observations that lent themselves to blogular explanation, not the weird sensory notes that will take some time to resolve and render into words. Not all of these are worth using. None of them immediately gives me a story seed (give me time.) But I accrete these images and moments all the time, and it’s hard to predict when one will blossom, or, set next to my current idea or problem, suddenly connect. Moreover, just collecting them gives me a sense of glee. It makes me feel a part of the world, its weirdness and whimsy and occasional joy.

In Psych 101, we learned that you could strengthen your sense of smell by practicing. Our professor noted that many people didn’t want to increase their nasal sensitivity because they thought they would be inundated with bad smells, but this isn’t the case. She said that apparently the brain always registers bad smells, because they are potential threats: when you train up your nose, you smell more (and more complex) pleasant or neutral odors. I immediately started training my nose.

I wonder if there’s a similar effect with the multi-sensory observations I make of the world. I noticed some time ago that I am generally happier, mellower and more at peace than I used to be, and I wonder if part of this is from the discipline of observation I’ve acquired. “The impulse to write comes from the impulse to love,” my final advisor, Jack Driscoll, says. Perhaps observing the world closely is a way of loving it.

Update: Related post here.


1. Way to sound like a wonderful Bob Dylan song!
2. The verb “accrete” is one of my favorites. A friend and I have also reinvented the term “attend” and use it to talk about paying attention to (rather than just consuming) “derivative media” like books and movies.
3. I am stealing Jack Driscoll’s words and quoting them, if you don’t mind. :-)



3. Jack says that a lot to large groups of students, so I think he doesn’t mind being quoted on it!

2. I like ‘accrete’ as well. How do you define “derivative media”? I don’t immediately see the rubric, esp. as applied to books.

1. I hardly think my little list was spare or evocative enough for THAT.

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