The Observant Writer

Stephanie Dowrick hard at work signing the fruits of her creative observation

“Writers are observers of life. They see things others don’t see. They listen when others don’t.”
Sharron Stockhausen, 20 Things Every Successful Writer Knows

I grew up in a time and in a place where it wasn’t polite to stare. If something awkward or embarrassing was happening to another person we were to look away as though it wasn’t happening and never, ever speak of it. Once, as children, my sister and I observed a plump middle-aged woman fall over in a yoga class, and we laughed about it for hours, repeating the details of the scene constantly to each other. When my mother discovered the source of our jollity we were soundly chastised. “And how would you feel if that was your mother other people were laughing about?” she asked.

But I am going to urge you to go against my dear mother’s just and true reservations. As writers we are kind of obliged to stare. Stare and ask questions. Stare, ask questions and write it all down when we get home.
That is our job, gentle manners be damned. These days someone toppling over in the middle of Reverse Warrior Pose would be grist for my authorly mill. I wouldn’t, as testament to my mother’s training, laugh out loud, but I would probably go and talk to the poor clumsy victim afterwards and then write it all up so that other people might laugh about it. Names and places changed, of course.

Michael Hyatt advises us to start with “Wow!” Can we honestly say that what we have written will make someone sit up and say it? Wow comes from really having an eye for the quirky, the small, the things that make life what it is and that make our writing truly come alive. It’s hard to be Wow when writing about sunsets, oceans or distant clouds. It is far easier to be interesting when identifying the things only you have noticed and seen as worthy of comment. The writer’s job is to make people remember things they had secretly known all along. Nothing is better than making the reader declare, “Yes! That is so true!”

Let’s work on doing that today – producing something that is absolutely filled with life. Listen closely to the way people really talk and see how you can re-create it on the page. Listen to their peculiar stories, their oddball ways of viewing life. Listen where others don’t – I am often intrigued by the details of rambles and rants that most others instinctively dismiss or avoid. I find rich pickings, for example, in the junk mail that finds its way into my letter box. It reveals to me an amazing word that I would otherwise know nothing of. Brazilian cults that distribute free vials of anointing oil, cramming schools active in four languages, diet-rich-quick schemes and a sad and affecting lost pet rabbit. Any of those things could find a place in a story, an article or a novel.

Too often I see writers who are just scraping by, who are writing stuff but not with any life or sense of enthusiasm. Stop that! The reason we write is because it makes us feel creative, special and alive. Put all of those qualities into what you write, each and every sentence. Be alive to what you experience each and every day, see it all with new eyes. One of the things I often ask my writing students to do is to write about their morning as though they were visiting a foreign country and it was all strange and new to them. This reveals to them the richness of the everyday, and it can also expose how much they have been missing about the wonder of their own lives. We take too much for granted. Spend a day as a journalist in your own life and discover just how many stories and note-worthy details pop up.

And most importantly, get out of the house. Creativity guru Julia Cameron has for decades advocated “The Artist’s Date” during which you take yourself, all alone, to a place or event that you think will stimulate your creative faculties. It needn’t be elaborate or expensive. Once I took a short bus trip to stand outside a locked church that had always intrigued me. I walked around it, noting its details. It came alive in my imagination because I was devoting time and energy to really observing it, imagining what it must be like inside.

Creativity guru Julia Cameron

Get to know new people, force yourself to be in new situations. Never, ever give in to the temptation to just spend a night at home. Be with other writers, too. Their ideas, their enthusiasm, can be immensely inspiring.

 Learn from one another, collaborate, open yourself up to their vision of the world. People who really live life are always filled with stories. Be one of those people.

I originally published this article in the October 2013 edition of FreeXpresSion.
You can buy Sharron Stockhausen's ebook here - it is excellent and I really recommend it.  


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