There’s an elementary school crossing guard here in Santa Fe who always waves as you pass. He’s tall, thin, with dark hair and a mustache, and always seems to have a big smile on his face. In my mind, his name is Jack.
The drive past the school can be frustrating. The street’s narrow. Vehicles in wait for youngsters choke the passage. But as I slow down, right after I think darn, should’ve gone the other way, I look ahead for Jack. And this is the magical part. Each and every time I wait for his wave and smile. And feel happy when I wave back as I creep by. Even knowing by now he will wave whether it’s after his stop sign drops or if the crosswalk is clear. As if he knows how important he truly is. As if that wave with a smile is part of the job. Part of making the world a safer, calmer, friendlier place. Like the young daughter of a Facebook friend observed, “That guy holds the whole school together.” Her reasoning – if he doesn’t help people cross, no one gets to school. If he doesn’t stop cars, it’d be backed up with cars everywhere. Makes sense to me.
What this has to do with writing is in those moments I traverse that block, I’m completely present, observing with awareness. Not just the road or how close I am to the vehicles I pass, but the cues ahead, the man, what’s happening inside me. He makes me smile when he waves. I always feel better when I wave back, and carry my smile another mile.
A friend shared a goat ate her To-Do list. She was walking on a residential street a block or two off one of the main thoroughfares in Santa Fe. Her mind full of everything that needed doing. When she paused, a goat stuck its nose thru a fence, pulled the paper right from her fingers. Completely surprised her. With total calm, the goat watched her as it chewed her list. That got me thinking to let go of that list and get writing, she said. Her awareness went beyond the goat. It went to observing her bigger picture, and her intentions for writing.
Observing with awareness is one of the key things writers do besides pen to paper & fingers to keyboard. It informs what we know. Our knowledge of people, environments, and the world expands. What we observe informs our work. The details we choose from what we observe affect how we engage readers.
There’s a quote by author Nancy Peacock in The Writer’s Block Myth that perfectly illustrates this. She’s at the beach. With a few details, we know the unfriendly weather and landscape. But it doesn’t matter she’s sequestered indoors, she says. She’s wondering what it would be like for her character to see the ocean for the first time.
Another example in the book is by poet Rachel Ballentine. She describes what could be an ordinary morning walk, but the details she chooses give the reader anything but an ordinary experience. Such as a dead tiny yellow bird, and metal lanyards against flagpoles sounding like windchimes. And with four words of observation, she let’s us know the time of morning and that she’s alone, “. . .everyone was still asleep.”
Observe with awareness.
- Sit outdoors and choose one aspect of what’s around you – buildings, people, trees, sidewalk, cars. Collect all the details of what you observe in that one aspect. Do the same indoors.
- Look at the sky. Observe how you feel when you see it, and what it reminds you of. What words would you choose to describe it visually so someone can see and feel it, too. I once saw a sheet of dark clouds move over the ceiling of the sky that reminded me of a moonroof on a car closing. Another time, observing hundreds of shore birds of all kinds at dawn, ‘I stand at the altar of birds’ came to me. It was the catalyst for my Pushcart Prize nominated poem.
- Look for the ordinary, consider how it’s not ordinary. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of details about the thing, such as the beauty of a tiny yellow bird + it being dead. Perhaps it’s something that can feel like a deprivation, but can also hold wonder, such as someone seeing a roiling sea for the first time.
- Fiction writers often eavesdrop. Listen. What do you hear? Write it all down. Even snippets and sentences.
- Look at details in images, such as the one above. What do you notice about the rosaries? Or about the tree and surroundings? What can you deduce from each detail you notice.
If you’ve started your Evidence Journal, your tangible notes of when you write and do what writers do, record this time when you’re observing in it. The details are what life and stories are made of. Any one can be a prompt.
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