How to Be a Writer: Lesson 2 – Become a Keen Observer

Lesson 2: Become a Keen ObserverOne of my first lessons in creative writing at Reseda High School was partly a trust exercise. It took place in the horticulture area that used to be at the back of the school. We were paired with a partner. One of us was blindfolded, and the other led the blindfolded person to various plants, buildings, and other items. We had to learn how to sense and describe items without seeing them. We focused on how they felt and smelled and what kind of sound they made. We would then trade off, and the other person was blindfolded and led around.

As lawsuit-sensitive as we Americans are now, such an exercise couldn’t be done in a public school today. However, this exercise gave us an important lesson about observation. You have to observe with all of your senses.

Try it as you walk around your neighborhood. What does the sidewalk feel like? Is it smooth and even? Or are there cracks or raised areas were tree roots grew under it? What scents do you smell? Cut grass? Motor oil? Dog poop? What do you hear? Don’t just focus on what is immediately in your area, but what is in the distance. Can you hear the cars from the boulevard that runs past your neighborhood? What do you hear in the houses and backyards?

When you look, look for details. Is the paint on a house fresh, or is it faded and peeling? What do the lawns look like? Are they evenly green or are there brown patches and weeds? What are people wearing? Those details can reveal much about the people you see.

This is a benefit of being a keen observer: You can use your observations to come up with story ideas.

Suppose you saw a balding middle-age man with a day’s worth of stubble. He is wearing a faded New Orleans Saints t-shirt and baggy gray sweats with frayed hems. His lawn hadn’t been mowed in weeks and have weeds popping up through the dead brown grass.

What kind of stories can you come up with from such an image? Suppose the man had a death in his family that made him despondent and disinterested in life. Or suppose he lost his home in New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, and he never adjusted to life in a new town. Or maybe he is actually a secret agent in disguise to investigate a spy in your neighborhood. Your observations can lead to all types of possibilities.

Here are some tips that can help you be a better observer:

  • Look at ordinary things in new ways. Suppose you were a space alien who looked into a mirror for the first time. How would you describe it? Or suppose you had never eaten a hamburger before. What would it taste like? How would that food feel in your body? Develop different perspectives on familiar objects.
  • Look for contrasts. The CEO with tattoos on his hand. A woman putting on makeup while sitting in the luxury car she slept in that night. These contrasts can create powerful images and provide a starting point for fascinating stories.
  • Look for what is missing. The things that are absent can reveal more than what you see. A missing tooth. A vacant lot. A speech where someone talks about everything except the most important issue. Imagine what is missing and why.

By learning to be a keen observer, you can be a better writer. Look for details, contrasts, and missing items, and learn to see familiar things in new ways. Once you have your observations together, you need to create clear descriptions with them. This will be covered in the next lesson. Good luck with your writing!


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