Lately I haven’t been writing much. For once I have a valid reason. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially, because of a family crisis, I find myself back at my childhood home in Zimbabwe with little to no time to myself and definitely no emotional energy to be creative.
I decided that I should at least do a bit of journaling, and record what is happening and how I felt about the situation I find myself in, but I’m too close to it right now, and too focused on what needs doing to write even that. My friend and business partner Ruth, in her wisdom, suggested that I just be aware of the five senses while I am here. Store up the smells and sounds and tastes of Africa where my novel is set.
It was a good idea. I had noticed, for instance, that when I arrived in the last week of October the Jacaranda trees were in full and splendid bloom. They only bloom like this for about a week, and if you are lucky enough to witness it, you can find yourself travelling under a canopy of trumpet-shaped lilac blossoms—no green leaves yet, just blossoms— each blossom bunch a nodding head of delicate beauty. Then one gusty wind storm or a thrashing afternoon thundershower and they fall en masse, carpeting the ground in lilac for one glorious day until they are trampled underfoot into a bruised mess. I knew this about Jacarandas. I’d grown up with them. But in my memory, I had one important detail wrong. I always thought this happened in September!
It’s also the time for flying white ants. I thought I knew all about them too. After all, as kids we used to catch and cook them on a fire till they were crispy and edible. (Yes, people, the fad move to eating insects is definitely not revolutionary.) What I had never noticed, however, was that once they lost their wings (a natural occurrence) they seek each other out on the ground and form a train of wingless bodies head to toe. To what end, I have yet to discover.
So, I told myself, maybe forget trying to advance the novel for now and concentrate on noticing with a writer’s eye. Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly, says, “Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”
It’s advice I give to participants in my creative get-a-ways at Glentula. It takes time and focus and a willingness to really look and see what really is and not what you think is or should be. There is an art to noticing.
So how can you develop your writer’s eye and learn to really notice?
- Practise, practise, practise
Whenever you are out and about, pay attention. In cafés, in waiting rooms, at the supermarket or on a lonely country road. Notice with all the senses. I listen in on conversations at Tim Hortons, or between the cashier and the shopper, moms at baseball games and GO train passengers. I notice the words and phrases they use, the topics they discuss and the reactions of those around them.
I often travel by car long distances on the same road and have challenged myself to notice different things on different trips. One trip, I may focus on what grows in ditches. Or what yellow things occur naturally in nature. What birds sit on fences or what a roadkill really looks like. I feel the fabrics in a fabric store or smell the flowers in public gardens. How do you describe the taste of coffee?
- Look for incongruities
How is the thing you are observing different from other things of its kind? Why is it different? What’s missing? What’s extra? Why are all the kids at the crosswalk wearing coats except one? Why does only one apartment in a high-rise have a balcony flower box? Can you think of a story behind that observation?
- The same thing can be different
My good friend, Ingrid Ruthig taught me an important lesson about observation: the same thing can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.
Try describing the same thing at different times of the day, different seasons. Notice what cell phone covers women or young people choose over older men. Don’t just notice a colleague’s scarf, notice how it is tied today versus yesterday. What colour is the asphalt when it rains versus a sunny day? What colour is snow? (it’s seldom white).
- Read people
Don’t just look at people in general, look for specifics: what makes them stand out or blend in. What actions and body language do they use to exude confidence or jealousy or nervousness? What can you deduce from how they dress or wear their hair or hats? If a couple looks unhappy, businesslike or best friends, can you identify what made you come to that conclusion? What is it about someone that makes you uneasy or willing to open your heart to them?
- Challenge your powers of description
How many ways can you describe something? What is it like? How many different similes can you come up with? How would your characters describe it? My husband and I try to find different names for the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Do you always resort to sense of sight? Do you consider light and temperature, texture and mood?
So what have I noticed today? I’ve noticed the three-note call of the piet-my-vrou bird is the first birdsong of the morning. That the pods of the weeping boer bean tree hang like fruit bats. That the blue-green iridescent loerie bird that flew overhead has red underwings, and the bark of the fever tree is yellow.
That my sister’s dachshund dog is so portly that when he sleeps his legs stick out straight like roadkill. That the tortoise in the garden can devour half a watermelon in twenty minutes, and that my mother’s hair is the colour of history: iron, copper, silver and gold.
And I’m waiting to see if, like the lilac Jacarandas, the red flamboyant trees will lose their blossoms in the storm that is now brewing on the horizon.
What did you notice lately?