Athletes practice. Musicians practice. As a writer, you need to do the same. Whether you havedreams of writing a novel, a memoir, or a collection of poems, or you simply want to improve your everyday writing, you’ll need to build your skills by way of practice.
Doing so includes making use of all of your faculties, including the act of observation. The following excerpt is taken from Barbara Baig’s How to Be a Writer, which is an empowering, down-to-earth book that gives you the tools you need and tells you what (and how) to practice so that you can become the writer you want to be.
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The power of observation—of being aware of and noticing what is around us—is a natural human faculty that we are all born with. In many of us this faculty has atrophied from lack of use; but, with practice it can, in time, be regained.
How to Observe 1: Turn Outwards
Developing your observational powers is simple: Turn your attention away from the chatter in your mind—I wish I hadn’t said that … I wonder if I should buy chicken for dinner … I think he likes me—and turn it outwards, toward the world around you. Simply notice what is there: What do the clouds look like today? What is the person sitting next to you on the subway wearing? How loud is the train? How does your sandwich taste?
Though this practice is simple, you may not find it easy. For many of us, the act of engaging with the world around sends our minds instantly into the mode of evaluation and judgment. Very often we leap from attention to judgment without even realizing we are doing so: What an ugly dress that woman is wearing! or I hate this music. But observation is not judgment! Observation requires that we pay attention to what’s around us not with our judging minds but with our noticing minds: That woman’s dress is red and green with yellow stripes. Or: This music repeats the same two sounds over and over.
The first step in learning to observe is to slow down. These days many people (at least in big East Coast cities) live as if life were a continuing series of emergencies. I’m so stressed! we tell our friends, as if having too much to do and not enough time to do it were somehow heroic. It’s impossible to develop your power of observation when you are rushing around all the time. So give up some of those things you think you have to do (so your house isn’t clean, so your paper isn’t in on time—will the world end?), and let yourself slow down. Then, in this state, do something simple, like sit at your kitchen table with a cup of tea or go for a walk. And simply notice what is around you: a chair, a tree, grass, sky, buildings, other people. At first you may resist this practice; it may seem so simple as to be silly. Yet observation is one of the things that good writers do; it’s one of the fundamental ways of being a writer.
If you would like to take this practice one step further, record your observations in your writer’s notebook in a practice I call external collecting.
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How to Observe 2: Do External Collecting
One of the best ways to develop your power of observation is to use your writer’s notebook to do the practice of external collecting. In this practice, you collect material, not from inside yourself, as with internal collecting, but from outside yourself. Get into the habit of turning your attention outward and see what catches your interest. When something grabs you—the odd name of a business or some words you overhear on the subway or the color of the sky at dusk—jot it down in your notebook (or someplace else, if you don’t have your notebook handy; you can copy or paste it in later). Many writers keep a small notebook with them all the time so that they can capture their observations. If you write only on one side of the page, you can paste or tape the page into your large notebook later on.
This kind of external collecting is another essential writer’s practice. It does two things: It trains your powers of observation, and it provides you with material you can use in your writing: ideas for things to write about, bits of dialogue, images, descriptive details, and so on. Most writers (except the terminally self-absorbed) make a habit of spending a great deal of time doing this kind of external collecting. Henry James, for instance, used to go to dinner parties in London, where he lived, and collect stories told to him by other dinner guests; later he would use some of those stories to create his novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same thing; so does Ann Beattie (who has acknowledged that after she has borrowed her friends’ stories she then invites them over for dinner as a way of repaying them).
Noticing things in the world can also spark thoughts and memories. The sight of a woman with blonde hair may remind you of your high school girlfriend, while a homeless person may give you ideas for a letter to the editor about homelessness. To be stimulated into ideas for writing by the outside world is a wonderful thing. External collecting is just as valuable as internal collecting in giving you ideas for things to write about as well as material you might use someday, so I urge you to make it a regular part of your practice. You can collect at random, whenever something strikes you; and you can—and should—make external collecting a deliberate practice.
Barbara Baig has been writing and teaching for over three decades. She’s the author of the Writer’s Digest books How To Be a Writer and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Your Readers. She talks about The Mastery Path for Writers at www.WhereWritersLearn.com.
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