An Essential Writing Tool

When was the last time you watched the sun rise? Children playing at a park? A hawk hovering in the sky? The man in the check out line on his cell phone fumbling for his wallet?

Not just noticed, but really watched?

As writers, we recreate the world for our readers. Our work acts as a kind of mirror that invites people to look at the world again with new eyes. We use fiction to relate fact.

One of the greatest tools for a writer, therefore, is observation.

Every other week or so, I meet with my writing guru, Jim Sallis, for coffee and a writing chat. (I call it my Latte MFA.) Jim is a constant observer, and often quotes Henry James while teaching:

“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

Observing Jim observing is a treat. Mid-sentence, he’ll interrupt himself to say, “Watch how that man walks” or “Look at that woman’s shoes”. Jim Sallis is someone on whom nothing is lost. And it shows in his work. The characters in his books move and talk like real people. They interact with visceral, tangible settings.

Yes, a lot of writing is making stuff up and building new worlds that only exist in your imagination. But the building blocks of your fantastical worlds are in everything you see around you right now. How the yellowtail outside your window darts about catching bugs. How the sound of the big-rig rumbles through the quiet of your neighborhood. How the man talking to himself at the bus stop paces, favoring his right foot.

The struggle for me is taking time to observe. I’m always on the go. From here to there to the next thing. Interacting with people while not really seeing them. Only taking in the world around me to the extent it helps me get from here to there to the next thing.

How much am I missing? How much am I missing.

How often, when I sit down to write that scene, do I pull characters and sets from central casting instead of really getting into the particulars that make them real?

I want my writing to stand out. I want my readers to experience the worlds I create. I want to be someone on whom nothing is lost. There’s one tool that will help me be that writer and person: observation.