Writing Lesson: Observation

I thought it might be interesting to put down some of the things I’ve learned from teaching writing.  From writing too, of course, but I find that when I teach writing, I tend to make certain points over and over.  Because these are the sorts of things that many writing students need to work on.  So I thought they might be interesting to point out here as well, for those of you who are writers, or who simply want to improve your writing . . .

The first one I want to talk about has to do with observation.  If you want to be a writer, you need to also be an observer . . . someone who is curious about the physical world around you. I don’t know about you, but I find it harder to write about the physical world than about mental states. It’s easy enough to describe what someone is thinking, but try to describe someone walking down stairs. I mean, in a way that makes it interesting.

(Ironically, writing students often think the way to keep a narrative interesting is to include action scenes. But action scenes can get very boring, very quickly. It’s often less interesting to watch a character act than to hear her think. Physical actions are usually interesting to the extent that they illuminate something else: the character herself, the world in which she is acting, etc.)

When describing the physical world, it’s very easy to fall into clichés. And the best way to avoid clichés is to observe closely, to see things as they are instead of as people say they are. To see what actually is.

So here is an exercise for any writers among you: go and observe. I do it sometimes sitting on the metro, where I can see so many faces, all different. I think about what makes them different, what distinguishes them from one another. I try to remind myself to observe, because it’s so easy not to see, isn’t it? To go through our days, particularly when we’re busy, and simply miss what is around us. The colors of leaves on the sidewalk. The different kinds of stone in the buildings. And the world is hard to describe anyway, because it’s so specific, each part of it different from every other part, and yet the words we have are “gray stone” and “autumn trees,” and it’s hard for writing to get at that specificity. But we have to try.

I was thinking about this recently as I read a description of a character in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. The description comes right at the beginning of the book, two paragraphs in:

“Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished-looking man, for that part of the world, at least. There was something individual in the way in which his reddish-brown hair, parted cleanly at the side, brushed over his high forehead. His nose was straight and thick, and his eyes were intelligent. He wore a curly, reddish mustache and an imperial, cut trimly, which made him look a little like the picture of Napoleon III. His hands were large and well kept, but ruggedly formed, and the backs were shaded with crinkly red hair. He wore a blue suit of wooly, wide-waled serge; the traveling men had known at a glance that it was made by a Denver tailor. The doctor was always well-dressed.”

This, by the way, is what Napoleon III looked like:

Napoleon III

But I can imagine Dr. Archie without that image. He’s stuck in a small town in Colorado, but I know he will be a strong character, simply from the way he’s described. It’s a long description — you probably would not find one as long in a modern novel, since novels now are expected to move at a faster pace. But Cather avoids any clichés. She includes generalizations (“always well-dressed”), but also backs them up with specifics (the Denver tailor). And notice the information she does not give us: we don’t know the color of his eyes. It’s standard in student writing to find a description that focuses primarily on hair and eye color. Here Cather gives us hair color, but not just on Dr. Archie’s head. We also learn about his mustache and the hair on the back of his hands. We do learn that his eyes were intelligent, which is actually what we most need to know about him.

Do you see what she’s doing? She’s describing what we would probably notice if we actually met Dr. Archie. These are the things about him that stand out, that make him different from other people. That are specific to him.

So when you’re observing, you really have to observe two things at once: what is in front of you, and yourself noticing. You have to see how you’re seeing. And not just what is static, but also gestures.  Here Cather gets gesture in a bit with the stiff shoulders; it’s a static description, but we get a sense for how he holds them, for how Dr. Archie moves.  When you’re observing, think about how people move, how they walk down stairs, or put their hand on the railing, or look back up when they reach the landing. How do they turn back their heads? What do their gestures look like?

It occurred to me, writing this post, that writing handbooks often tell you how to write, focusing on the craft of writing itself. But they don’t often tell you how to be a writer: how to prepare yourself to write. How to go through the world as a writer, finding and absorbing the material you will need. Because writing doesn’t come out of your head. Oh, if only it were so easy! No, writing comes out of other writing, and out of your lived experiences. If it comes only out of other writing, it’s merely imitative. If it comes only out of lived experiences, it’s often unformed, uninformed. Like a long diary entry, uninteresting to read. Good writing happens when you’ve absorbed a great many things, both from books and from life, and they’ve mixed pretty thoroughly in you, as though you were a cocktail shaker. And then you pour it out, into whatever form you’ve chosen or it’s chosen for itself (whether a poem, or short story, or novel).

So if you want to be a writer, give yourself homework: go out and observe.

Song of the Lark

This, by the way, is my copy of The Song of the Lark, from 1924.

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10 Responses to Writing Lesson: Observation

  1. lynn says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Theodora! I think you’re right, that writers are and must be, observers; and that it’s not always easy to translate these observations into good prose.

    Somehow, I’ve managed to miss Cather’s writing altogether. Must remedy that.

    (Last night, I finished re-reading The Murder in the Vicarage. Christie’s another one for masterful observations. 🙂 )

  2. Candice Peck says:

    I love your posts…they flow along so well, common sense, yet pointedly reminding us of what we know, should know, need to keep in mind. Observation. Also my first requirement of becoming a writer, which I used to teach to elementary students in the Young Author’s programs. I used the concept from Elizabeth Yates’ book “Someday You’ll Write”, of putting on your ‘invisible cloak’ when out in public…becoming a hidden spider, so to speak, observing tiny details of everything and everyone around you. Keeping your snippets of these ‘spied observations’ in a collection, even if they’re scraps of paper in a shoebox, so you can pull them out and use them later, as they become appropriate. Such as one I had kept, labelled ‘bubblegum lady’…she was rotund, in bubbled layers, like the tv commercial’s tireman logo, dressed in a sleeveless, pink terry dress, with white hair piled high in a layered bun, like a soft meringue, pearly white cat-eyed glasses attached to a silver linked safety necklace, and as she shopped in the local discount store, she pushed the cart with one hand, while the other arm clutched her tiny white shitzu with the pink bow, completing her accessorized look. My house is slightly cluttered with a revolving collection of post-it notes, scraps of napkins, corners of envelopes from the recycling pile, jagged pieces of torn newsprint, all covered in whatever writing utensil I can get my fingers on, as I quickly jot my observations…I think of them as butterflies…I swoop out my invisible net to grab onto them before they can escape…I must have them all, or at least, as many as I am observant enough, quick enough, to get my hands on…little prizes they are, to squirrel away until the moment my writing project needs to recall them.

  3. Lately, riding on buses I have tried to emulate Sherlock Holmes. I choose an interesting person and try to describe them by little things, a thick wedding ring,
    dyed hair (or not) a lot of things about hands, loose, clenched, etc. Of course I try
    to add some story to put them in. Sort of like auditions. In my other background I
    did a lot of theater, acting, directing and coaching. The two interests come together.
    When I write, I am seeing my characters as if in a play or movie. Should she or should she not pick up the slightly soiled lace handkerchief? Choice determines action. Fun!

  4. This is delightful! I’m a published writer, however, I’ve not written in quite a long while, due to reasons too complex to share here. This post was perhaps the most inspiring one I’ve seen yet. Oh, how I would love to see a book on developing one’s internal writer, so to speak – for this is what I’d lost touch with. This was incredibly helpful, thank you so much. Would love to see more of these!

  5. LJB_3rd says:

    Reblogged this on Not A WordPress Blog and commented:
    A great bit of advice from Theodora Goss. Worth the read.

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