Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Looking at the Same-Old Same-Old in a Different Way

by Pat Stoltey

Our power of observation, one of the best tools we have available as writers, gets rusty when we grow too accustomed to our surroundings.

Three years ago, when my first grandchild was six-months-old, she gave me a wonderful lesson in looking at common things in a new way. Talia, for instance, was fascinated by anything electronic. The television stayed off most of the time because she wouldn't take her eyes off the screen when it was on. The laptop computer enthralled her the same way, and she thought it was loads of fun to lunge for the keyboard and make exciting things happen. And if she was allowed to get close enough, she even tried to taste it.

A tall pile of magazines was a temptation not to be ignored. She toppled the stack many times...and tasted the covers. She even tasted my sweater when I held her in my lap.

So today I'm looking at the television screen, and the computer, a stack of magazines, even my sweater, and wondering what Talia saw that I don't see. Color? Movement? Texture? Or was everything just a potential teething ring? After all, we did catch her chewing on the coffee table.

There's a lesson here, of course. As writers, we need to stay alert to our surroundings, do things that make us see the same old stuff in a new way. We tend to take the same route to the grocery store, order the same meal at a frequently visited restaurant, wear the same clothes on Sunday, follow an orderly routine first thing in the morning, or before going to bed.

What happens if we change it up a bit? Take the long way around when we drive to the store and pay attention to what we see along the way? Go to that favorite restaurant, but order something we've never ordered before and savor every bite?

Forcing ourselves to look at ordinary things in new ways can help us write better descriptions. What do you see when you look at your laptop? What do you think Talia saw when she stared at the television?

Have you tasted a sweater lately? Or a book? Smelled your garden-fresh tomato?

What do you do to sharpen your power of observation?


11 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Oh, there's nothing like spending time with a small child to show us how to see things in a new light. I love the way they're always discovering things. You're right too that we can breathe life into what we write by seeing it with new eyes. What do I do about that? Sometimes I find that if I put it aside for a few days and then re-read, I see things that weren't there before.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I try not to chew on my clothing.
Sometimes all it takes is a different angle to gain a new perspective.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Margot, I'm always amazed at what I see from a printed copy of a manuscript that I didn't see on my monitor, too.

Alex, you don't know if chewing on your sweater works if you haven't even tried it. :D

Janet Fogg said...

Thanks, Pat. You made me think! (I hate it when that happens!)

While I don't want to chew on my keyboard, it is interesting to consider the taste aspect of items that children choose to sample. That reminded me of how I always enjoy it when odors are described in a scene, how it makes that scene more tangible to me, and that's a layer I try to add to my writing.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Janet -- I think that's why that reminder to remember the five senses as we write is such good advice. It helps us imagine a scene when we have a clue about smells in the air, background noise, etc.

Susan Spann said...

Great post, Pat. I love the mental exercise involved in looking at the "normal" in different ways. Watching children watch the world is also a fantastic way to alter perspective - both in terms of relative size and in terms of possibilities.

Great post, and thanks for the reminder!!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Susan, I've even found it interesting to check out my back yard from Katie Cat's point of view when I have her out with her harness and leash. I even see grasshoppers in a whole new light...

Dean K Miller said...

It amazing how much you can see if you stand still, close your eyes and breathe...

Patricia Stoltey said...

Dean, that's the truth. Odors create very accurate images in our brains...like the smell of chocolate chip cookies in the oven. :D

Karen Lange said...

I love looking at things this way but often get busy and fail to take the time to do it. I used to sit on our kitchen floor and play with my 3 kids. The view was always different there - in a good way, except for seeing the smudges and fingerprints on the oven. :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Karen -- Seeing the world from the same level as a toddler is great fun, isn't it? It's a little harder for me to get up and down now that I'm a grandma, but the temptation is still there.