Writing Discussion

Learning to See

Apples by Mike Ryan

What do you see in this photo of apples?

  • If you’re hungry, you might see a quick snack.
  • If you’re a baker, you might see ingredients for pie.
  • If you are an artist, you might pay attention to the intensity of the colors, think about how to reproduce the sheen of gloss with paint.
  • If you’re a gardener, you might think of the soil and sun, the season for picking, or the season for pruning.

What we see is tied to our personal experience and view of the world. As a writer, or as an artist, learning different ways of ‘seeing’ is a valuable tool . If I ever feel blocked, or stuck in cliché, questioning my default view opens up a world of complexity.

Challenging our assumptions of our world.

First, we need to identify our assumptions.

Let’s break down this example: “Technological advance = progress. Technology makes the world better.”

I work in the software industry. We’re always being told about the next great innovation that will revolutionize or improve the customer experience. It’s what I’m being sold.

Are there cases where this isn’t true?

People trade in their computers to keep up with technology, and creating tons of electronic waste in the process.  E-waste is often shipped to developing countries for processing. How would you view technology if you had to deal with e-waste shipped into your small town from the West?

Companies that rely on computer power use enormous amounts of energy to keep their servers running and cool. What happens in places where energy is scarce? How would you view the demands of technology if you ran the energy department of a country that has to buy electricity from elsewhere?

What about progress?

I watch a lot of the history channel, and I’m always amazed by how much technology people had in the past. Humans have always done the best they could with the resources at hand. People have always been as smart as they are now, though their knowledge base differed. People today can’t always figure out how to reproduce ancient technology. Technology has been gained, and technology has been lost. How would you view technology if you were plunged back in time to ancient Egypt and could watch the pyramids being built?

We are living longer lives thanks to advances in medicine, but also changing our diets and bodies and shifting to a sedentary lifestyle that can also pose complications. Life expectancy has decreased in the USA in the past decade. How would you view progress if you were a doctor?

Traveling can open your eyes, and so can being immersed in a different culture.

I wish that everyone could go on at least one big trip in their lives. There’s nothing more eye opening than ending up in a place where you feel out of your element. It can be stressful to take away the familiar, but also so rewarding to get closer to understanding a different point of view.

Navigating multiple cultures can be like discovering layers of worlds piled up on top of each other, coexisting, but sometimes invisible. The willingness to understand opens up new worlds and sometimes the key to the door can be something as simple as sharing food.

My family has always gathered around food. Births, deaths, weddings, they all revolve around eating. What do you see when a family is gathered around a table? Do you notice if food is heaped onto a table for sharing, or if it’s portioned out plate by plate? Do you see who prepares the food, and who cleans up after? Do people pause to pray before a meal? Is the dining room noisy and chaotic, or quiet and relaxing?

But we don’t always have to go far to learn.

Shifts in culture and attitude can be subtle. In North America alone, there are differences between the culture of the west and the east, the north and the south. It’s in the little things: word choices, slang, accents, expectations about what is rude or polite. And it’s not bad, just different.

Do you see the differences? Do you notice these worlds?

Other points of view to consider:

  • Female gaze vs. the male gaze
  • Signifier and signified (semiotics)
  • Eastern world view vs. Western
  • View of the world or world history from a different religious background
  • View of the world from someone who has no power

If you’re interested in reading more, I’d recommend the book of essays based on the 1972 BBC series in the same name: “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger.

So let’s get back to those apples. What do you see now?

18 Comments to “Learning to See”

  1. This is powerful. I see in the apples actually the green and the red apart from the others as two people. Both are innovators who do not want to follow the herd mentality (or the apple bunch) and want to move to something higher. Now imagine the rest of the apples being carted off to become apple pies.

    I am also reminded of the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” Perception is reality I was once told and I have to agree. The only way to truly grow is to see things differently and with different eyes. Bravo on an excellent post!

    1. “The rest of the apples being carted off to become apple pies.” Oh that just gave me shivers. Nothing close to that even crossed my mind.

      I had to Wikipedia that book, interesting food for thought, and a reminder that we shouldn’t remain complacent in our beliefs. Thank you for the recommendation E.J. 🙂

  2. This post really spoke to me, T! Cultural immersion has made all the difference in my perspective on life. In the Peruvian Andes, progress and success usually have little to do with technology. It’s less about productivity and more about the day-to-day being. And who’s to say that one definition is better than the other?

    But I also wholeheartedly agree that culture shifts can happen anywhere. The key is flexibility, creativity and openness. Sometimes, it also takes a little scare, surprise or push in the right direction — like reading this post. =)

    1. I’ve also experienced living in a different country, with a language I didn’t understand, and a culture that was foreign to me. It was one of the best things I did in my life 🙂

      Being scared is good sometimes hehe

  3. Wow, haha, I had no idea you were going to get so deep on me… But I think you’ve touched on exactly what I love best about travel. I mean, beyond the beauty and excitement of someplace new, I am always inspired when I travel. Simply being out of one’s element causes so many new thoughts and feelings — precisely the kinds of things that one can mine for a story. And, you know, for personal insight and development.

    1. Ah hah! I gotta keep you on your toes 😉

      Yup. I wish I could travel more. I always come back with so many new ideas. A fresh perspective, a different place, can open up so many possibilities. I also usually learn a lot more about myself (it’s not all good either).

  4. I’m not going to talk about apples, but your mention of “View of the world or world history from a different religious background” reminded me of a conversation I had last week with my Swedish officemate. Our boss’s (also Swedish) daughter started college and they were remarking on the history courses. In Sweden, they are “History” meaning world history and “Swedish History”. Her college courses are labeled “History” meaning American History and “World History”. Interesting difference in viewpoint.

      1. Oops, must have written that too quickly. I meant that in the US, they are labeled “History” meaning US history & and in the US “World History” explicitly includes the World. Whereas in Sweden if they are labeled “History” they assume World History.

  5. Apples, you damned hippie. I see apples.

    … Okay, but I had to make the joke. This is one of the best blog posts I’ve read so far this year, TS. I enjoy reflections on relativism. It’s a big reason for me staying and diving deeper into fiction, that notion of other points of view fleshed out into paradigms. You gently provoke a lot of thought through simple things like inviting us to take a doctor’s perspective. But if I see the apples a certain way, can I keep him away?

    1. I see poison. Just one bite of those shiny, innocent, sweetly smelling, apples will make my body break out into hives. I see the ghost of apple pies I’m never going to eat.

      😉 You may keep the doctor away, but apples will make mine come running.

      And thanks! It’s easy to slip into a comfortable mode of thinking. I think we all need a little shaking/stirring once in a while.

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention…I just received the book from Amazon.com – “Thinker Toys” by Michael Michalko which talks about creative people look at things differently. We as writers are on the right track!

  7. I think you’re very right that experience, travel, and the ability to see different points of view are absolutely essential for a writer. It’s part of why, as I understand, younger writers are rarely in a place where they are capable of writing truly great and timeless fiction – because they have not seen and experienced enough of the world to comment with any import on it.

    I love travel and seeing places I’ve never seen – but it’s exceptionally difficult and costly, both in terms of time and money. Worth it, but not always possible. Which is why the ability to see things from other perspectives is important. We won’t always be able to walk a mile in another man’s shoes – sometimes we have to just imagine what that would be like, and be willing for our minds to make the journey for us.

    Regardless of the method we use, it’s this ability to understand those who we are not that will allow us to really express that in the medium of our writing.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      As a reader, I also like to be transported into other shoes. I suppose that’s why I like fiction that surprises me, shows me new worlds, or new ways of thinking. It’s a good thing we don’t have to actually experience everything in person to learn, or I’d be broke(er) LOL.

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