Writing Exercises

Sharpening Powers of Observation

Writers tend to be observant people, but I lack in this area. By nature, I’m attuned better to emotion and relationship dynamics (I wonder if my poor eyesight has anything to do with that).

So I set this challenge today: to consciously practice my powers of observation, to think about what is happening in the present and use all my senses in the most boring of situations.

Observation Exercise 1 – Lunch

I leave my desk at exactly 11:42. It’s too early for the kitchen to be busy with people and my favorite space will still be unoccupied. It’s not a secret space, but the counter is tucked into the corner of the kitchen, facing a small patio growing with mint and chives, and peas, and bok choy.

I’m drawn to the seat bathed in the most light, and I set myself down, glass lunch container in hand. 472 mL, it reads. 472 strikes me as a strange number. It does not hold the same whole satisfaction that 500 would provide.

The glass is chipped in one corner, due to carelessness with the dishwasher. It’s still warm to touch from the microwave. How many glasses and plates and mugs have I destroyed over the years? Too many days sweeping up glass. I break things. It’s nothing new. I was probably thinking of a story or rushing to get back to my computer.

I sit, without newspaper or the security of a book to read. There’s no one around. On Friday’s the kitchens are always emptier than normal. There are no awkward conversations to wade through. The quiet and the sunshine are enough to make me happy.

I set the glass bowl on its lid. A staircase shaped piece of steak sits on a bed of rice. A square was cut out of the middle. The husband’s doing. What I’m left with is an edge of meat ringed with ligament or fat. I can’t tell which it is. I press it with a fork, and a small amount of clear juice drips down onto the rice. So, it’s still edible. There’s no space in the bowl to maneuver a knife, and I tear off a bite with my teeth. And I chew, and I chew. I can’t remember the last time I cooked a steak. Fat, ligaments, meat and all, I keep chewing. There’s more rice than meat. I try to make it last.

Under the meat I discover three pieces of shriveled mushroom, token vegetables tossed in between the meat and carbohydrates. I treat these like candy. I scoop up one little bit of mushroom, and two big scoops of rice.

Three grains fall onto the laminated blue countertop. I gather them into the lid of my lunch container. The grains are yellow and flowery smelling. Again, not my doing. Paprika? Oregano? It’s shines with oily film in the sunlight. The grains are reluctant to stay together on my fork. It’s not jasmine, or milagrosa, or any product of Thailand, the plain white steaming stuff I grew up with.

Outside the plants are moving and pulsing. The bok choy sways its leaves like butterfly wings. It’s movement, it’s life. A tall screen hides away the adjacent condo towers. It’s easy to forget I’m in the middle of the city. I watch a while, and finish my lunch. I leave fourteen grains of rice in the bowl, too lazy to scoop them all together. It’s time to return to my dark cocoon.

My eyes are spackled with green spots as I turn my back to the bright window. Half blind I navigate past the corrugated temporary wall that separates the kitchen from cubicles. I walk silently up stiletto pocked steps to the dim space of my desk. The sun bounces in from a skylight a few meters away. It does not bathe me, but I know it’s there and that makes me happy.

11 Comments to “Sharpening Powers of Observation”

  1. “Writers tend to be observant people, but I lack in this area. By nature, I’m attuned better to emotion and relationship dynamics (I wonder if my poor eyesight has anything to do with that).”

    HAHAHA ME TOO! Waaaah… But you know, that’s why I make up details! Both in fiction and real life. My boyfriend isn’t so fond of the latter… 😛

    Loved your lunch memory-scene. 🙂

    1. Hee hee! Thanks!

      Actually, my husband enjoys taking advantage of this. Every time someone asks us about how we met, he changes the story and adds in a few fictional details. I swear one day I’m not going to remember which version was the truth! Oh and when we’re in a fight… well… hah! I can never recall the finer points to back up my arguments… LOL so frustrating!

  2. I don’t pay attention enough to how people speak, which is shown in my dialogue, but to be honest the way we speak in Bulgaria is different than what US/UK might speak like, so I am not entirely sure whether I can do anything to remedy that. But I do observe people, I like to see their body types, how height and weight and clothes affect the body language. The eyes are extremely important for me as well.

    Inanimate objects and atmosphere in a room is not an issue for me. I can imagine things and recreate the physical with no problem. But making people distinguishable is my weakness.

    1. We all have some strong points to start with and weaknesses to work through. It’s fascinating what types of observations come naturally to other people. I don’t think I pay enough attention to clothing or even faces. I’m terrible at recalling those details.

  3. Lua

    Excellent point! It is extremely important for a writer to be a good observer who can catch all the details, mimics and gestures but very few people I know have that ability to do that naturally. Most writers I’ve met, they had to actually work on this, keep notebooks and constantly remind themselves to “stop and observe”…

  4. Honestly, I think your skills with regard to emotion and relationship dynamics will serve you far better in your writing career than your ability, or lack thereof, to observe, take note of, and record the small and seemingly insignificant details. I say that as a person who natively has a certain attention to detail, at times, and a complete blindness to details at others.

    I came to this conclusion, regarding the value of understanding relationship dynamics, after pondering for some time what made the Harry Potter books so popular. I, of course, enjoyed them, but as a writer I wanted to understand their success. It wasn’t that the books had some new or different idea.

    The plot and the trappings are all pretty standard fantasy fare: a boy hero destined to destroy the terrible evil wizard, the protective older mentor who must die to make way for the boy hero to fulfill his destiny, An anachronistic, pseudo-medieval setting (set alongside our modern, contemporary world – also a common fantasy trope). Dragons, magic swords and ancient magical artifacts, and so on. Arguably the only new idea was to set the entire thing almost exclusively inside a school for wizards. So, I checked the plot elements off my list. Nothing really new there. Same goes for the characters.

    Then, it hit me as I thought about the plot in more detail: the relationships. When you dig into Harry Potter, it’s all about these complex relationships between different characters. These people have history, and what they did in the past, before these books even started, has ramifications for what happens now. Who’s connected to who and why, and who loves who and who hates who, and so on and so on. And people really enjoyed that stuff.

    So, my conclusion: some people get off being successful writers by coming up with new and revolutionary ideas. A very few can be successful by being ultra-observant and lavishing their readers with flowery and beautiful language. But the real money is in telling stories about people with history and with relationships that are interesting and complex. Whatever your genre.

    Hmm… methinks I best blog about this topic. I expect I’ll get to that later this week 😉

    1. Yes this would make an interesting blog topic! I can see this discussion going a long way. Personally for me, when I read, I also seek out those relationship dynamics. They are what keep me engaged in a story. When I write, I find it easier to throw in characters who have pre-existing histories together as well, because that is what my mind gravitates to.

      However, I do believe there is a place for the details. They can create a sense of grounding to the story. Details can affect the believability, the sense of reality, or the sense of wonder.

      I think there should be just enough to transport you to a place, and make you feel that it’s real rather than a caricature. If we take the example of Harry Potter, there are details that blend in seamlessly into the tale such as the particularities of the British school system, the landscape of London, and dialect (also a detail).

      I wouldn’t say sensory details are the most important element, but that they are still important.

      1. I didn’t mean to denigrate the affectation for details so much as to say you already lay claim to the greater skill. Details are important, as you say, for giving a sense of space and place. But ultimately stories are about people. Otherwise, we’d all be enthralled by botony textbooks.

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