Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Using the Writer's Eye... and Everything Else

Not long ago I ran across email from a writer who suggested using "the writer's eye" to view the world as one way to improve writing skills. The suggestion got me to thinking and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn't enough to simply use your eyes as a writer. A better way to phrase that idea would be to view the world through all of a writer's senses.

During my 35 years as a journalist, I always stood back and viewed a situation as facts, figures and how an event might impact people. As a fiction writer, I have learned to step into that world and see things from a much more personal angle. And yet, my training as a journalist has made the fiction writer in me much stronger because it has honed my ability to absorb and dissect what I’m seeing, hearing and sensing.
I look at the journalist’s role in me as being that of a tape recorder--taking things in and recording them as they occur. Then later, the writer might play them back, but in a much more rich and embellished way. Then I get to call in my emotions and look at how scenery, an event, even a conversation affects me personally and emotionally.

But I now also record everything at the exact moment. That means looking at everything around me, feeling the energy of the moment almost every day and taking in as much as possible, recording it as a journalist, but then playing it back as a writer, using all my senses at my own leisure. As such, I am making time to pause for a few minutes at various moments during normal days to reflect on the world around me.
I find myself watching the distinctive gray of a winter day, but I don't simply see the murky gray dawn, I make myself feel it—record it through my senses for use later in a book or short story—the chilliness that nips at the nose as I step outside on a frosty morning, the hint of rose tinged clouds that I see on the eastern horizon. I let myself absorb the cold, feel it in my fingertips, let the wind bite my cheeks. It might be just an ordinary day, but if I can take the time, just a few minutes to record everything about that moment in time, I can use it later from memory, just when I need it. What are my emotions? Do I feel more alive because of the biting chill, or do I want to just go back inside and hunker down in front of a fire place?

I find myself doing the same thing in a busy coffee shop—mentally recording everything around me using as many of my senses as possible to be used later: the hum of conversation, the scent of coffee and cinnamon; the strong taste of the coffee, the cold blast of winter every time the outer door opens, the sting on my hand when I spill my hot coffee. I watch the people around me in case I need to describe a gesture later or think about how to put life into an otherwise dull scene by describing the antics of a two year old rushing from one end of the coffee shop to another, making a number of people nearly spill their lattes before her mother grasps her hand and locks her into a stroller. There’s the student in the corner in a knit hat and bulky sweater, tapping frantically at a keyboard, while taking sips from their tall cup of coffee. I catch snatches of the conversation of a business man on his cell phone, setting up his day with someone already at work.
At a business meeting that is growing boring, I don’t simply tune out and think about what I should be doing. Instead, I begin thinking about how I would characterize the carefully dressed woman with the out-of-date hairdo in the third row, or looking out through the windows and thinking about how to visually express the scene outside. I even think about how to correctly describe the droning tone of the speaker. I listen for the cadence of the speaker’s voice, or the screechy voice of that character behind me when she asks a question.  

These are small examples of a normal day, but that’s part of the point. If you can apply your senses to wherever you are, even for a few moments, and if you either write up the scene later or recall as much as you can as an exercise, it’s going to sharpen your skills as a writer.

Absorbing the world around you on a regular basis can enliven your writing. I like to think of it as soaking up the ambience of wherever I am, and I’ve always made a practice of doing that any time I visit a new place or find myself in an unusual location or situation. But now I am working on doing it as part of my daily routine. 
If you’ve worked at sharpening your senses on a regular basis, then when you visit that mansion you want to use in your historical, or when you are personally caught in the middle of a scene you want to use later in book, you’re senses will be sharp and ready to react and you’ll be ready later when you put it all down in your book or short story.

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