Sunday, January 3, 2010


Looking is so simple and satisfying, it's surprising that more people don't do it.  For a writer or an artist, it’s second nature. At least it should be. What can you write about or paint if you don’t look at what’s around you?  Even fantasy requires some carefully-observed characters for the reader to identify with.
As a child, I was lucky enough to have a terrific teacher who told us to choose one square foot of garden, observe it for ten minutes, then write about it. I was amazed and thrilled by what I saw and I think that’s what taught me to look properly.
Much later, a so-called creative writing teacher once told us NOT to write what we know and see, but to make it all up. She didn’t, her books were well-observed fiction and I couldn't help wondering if she was trying to subvert any writers in the class, eliminate the competition. 
    Recently a friend, an aspiring writer, claimed she couldn’t write about exciting things, because she didn’t lead an exciting life. Aarg. A writer can make anything exciting, from a grain of rice to a pile of laundry.
    Taking a moment to examine something, inspect its structure, its color, its shape, its function and consider its role in the grand scheme of things, is fun and far more exciting than anything I could make up. Proust thought so too.
    I remember holding a human femur in anatomy class in Paris and marveling at the intricacies of the bone: not merely a skeletal support, but engineered to be stronger by its slightly twisted and faceted shape, it had indentations and holes for blood vessels and nerves, grooves for muscle attachments, a smooth, rounded end to fit into a pelvis and condyls at the knee-end to fit into a tibia. A femur is such a long, swooping, graceful bone, it amazed me to think that all that articulation and support works at an angle too, when we walk with such thoughtless ease. I also wondered about the human being who used to move through the world with that magnificent bone and how oddly intimate and rather rude it was to be holding his femur.
    Few people really look closely at anything and most, when you enthusiastically ask them to “Look at this!” just give the item a cursory glance and smile politely. Very few stop and actually examine your find. So the responsibility falls on artists and writers to observe, then put what they've seen into paint or words so others can see what exciting stuff they missed.
    I once worked with an artist who knew how to look. When I'd rush in with great excitement about something, he would actually stop what he was doing, pick up what I'd brought, turn it over, scrutinize and pore over it and point out additional things that I hadn't yet noticed, adding to the thrill of discovery. So satisfying to look at something together, four eyes are better than two.


Clare Dudman said...

All very true and I especially like the last one. I don't think I've ever heard that pointed out before - and it strikes me it's like one of the joys of a book group. When you share what you see (or read) four eyes are indeed better than two!

Nora Lumiere said...

Looking comes dangerously close to staring when studying people, but looking with someone allows you to study the object as well as (surreptitiously) the looker.

Glynis said...

DH notices things I miss, so I made it my mission in 2009 to be more observant. It is amazing what I found, just by slowing down and looking beyond the obvious.

Interesting post.

Marisa Birns said...

It's wonderful being with a group of children on a walk. They look at everything...really look.

As we get older it seems that a cursory glance is all we want to give to things.

You're correct in advising that writers, artists, and other creative people need to carefully observe in order to understand and then share.

Laughed at your anecdote about that creative writing teacher! She might have been sabotaging all the competition, heh!

Very good post...

Nora Lumiere said...

Yes, kids are wonderful to watch, they almost have beams of curiosity radiating from their eyes.
Thanks for your comment.

Nora Lumiere said...

I find good looking requires coming to a complete stop. Movement seems to be the enemy of observation.
Thank you for your kind comment.

FleaCircusDirector said...

Quite right, your writing should be limited by your imagination not your experience.

I'm reminded of the story of the Emperor and the legend of the chessboard

For some reason your comment about laundry reminds me of the soap making in Fight Club...

Nora Lumiere said...

If your experience of life is limited, your imagination will be too. Fact is definitely stranger (and richer) than fiction.
Palahniuk is very good at incorporating strange processes into his books, like the soap-making from liposucked fat in FIGHT CLUB and the Stendahl Syndrome in DIARY and what it's like to be an historical re-enactor in CHOKE.

Cameron Writes said...

You are so right! That was a real treat last week on the campsite - covert people-watching of fellow residents and their interactions. Get so fed up when out and not given time to REALLY look at things.

Nora Lumiere said...

Isn't that what we like best in a writer, recognising ourselves on the page? That and an elegant turn of phrase, of course.
Sometimes, when I don't have time to study something or someone, I find myself remembering an image from that instant. Like a photo I can look at later.