Most people — I’d wager even most writers — tend to think of writing as the act of sitting at a desk and putting words onto pages with a pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor. While this might be technically correct, the act of composition is only a fraction of the overall writing process.
In reality, people who consider themselves more than occasional scribblers write constantly — Not in the pen to paper sense, but in the sense that they continually consume information that eventually emerges in written form. For writers, our experiences live again within the written works we produce.
Most of us drive a similar rout to and from the places we visit regularly without giving the things along that route a second thought. Unless something truly unusual happens along the way we rarely even remember the trip. We’ve seen it all before. But have you ever turned your head 90 degrees and glanced momentarily out the car window at something that caught your eye? Sure you have. And in that instant whatever it was that drew your attention became monetarily crystallized amidst the blur on either side of you. The drug store was no longer a random storefront but an early 1900s structure with a “Going out of Business sign, a jumble of backing boxes in the window and a steel grate across the plate glass to ward off criminals.
To a mere mortal, these observations might be little more than a monetary distraction; to a writer, however, these observations are not only reveal a potential setting for a story but a collection of images that bring the big questions that fuel all stories: who, what, when, where and why? Our everyday act of observing is, in fact, writing.
Learning to absorb more from every experience will greatly impact the quality and quantity of your work. In that sense, experiencing is writing.
One of the most important tools for good writer is keen powers of observation. Without the ability to store not only the facts of the images we experience but the feelings they evoked at the time, a writer becomes nothing more than a stenographer typing out facts. While this might serve to some degree in the world of non-fiction, fiction and poetry require a deeper sense of the world around us.
Writers must learn to observe everything, consider nothing too trivial to note. To that end, I can’t stress strongly enough the necessity to carry either a note pad or pocket voice recorder everywhere – and I mean everywhere – you go. Not all of us are blessed with the gift of total recall, so a note pad or recorder help assure that our daily experiences and observations are available later for writing. Make it a habit upon return from every outing to transcribe our observations in some sort of journal or computer process. Chances are you’ll not need most of what you observe for today’s story, poem or essay, but if you fail to store them in some retrievable manner they won’t be available when you need them either.
The following are a few suggestions of how to observe as a writer.
Let’s say you’re alone and driving to visit a favorite casual restaurant. You’ve done this many times, but today it’s different; you’re going to experience the visit as a writer. Here are just some of the things about which you might take note:
The Drive: Was the route rural or urban? Were roads in disrepair? Any celebration announcements along the way? Signs of urban decay? Predominance of particular ethnic or age groups? Anything at all that strikes you as even mildly of note should be noted.
The Immediate Area: What structures are near the restaurant? What is their building style or condition? Any signs of note? Does the restaurant simply blend in as almost unnoticeable? Any details of note about the restaurant itself?
The Restaurant layout: How long has the place been in business? Is it family operated or is it a chain? Does the door open inward to suggest a possible fire code violation? Any signs on the door? Is there a lunch counter? How many seats at the counter, and what style are they? How many tables or booths? Are booths along several walls or off to just one side? Is the place self seating? Is the kitchen area visible? Is there music playing? What sort of artwork is on the walls? Signs? Floor covering? How are the walls treated? Old paneling, out-of-date wallpaper or paneling? Or is the place unusually decorated? Is there an oversize moose head on the wall? How does the place smell? Are the menus brief or unimaginably extensive?
People: How many waitresses are there? What style of uniform, if any, do they wear? Are their outfits neat and pressed of unkempt? How many patrons? How are they dressed? What ager range? Ethnic makeup? How are any children behaving? How is that harried mother coping? Any conversations overheard? Loud laughter. How would you describe the service you receive? Is the owner out greeting customers? Is he a character who lends a special flavor to the place?
While we’re on people, try to capture key details about individuals. Imagine what they might do for a living or what they might be saying.
Food: What kinds of food do they serve? How is the pricing? How did it taste? Is there some special that seems forever to be on the menu? Is there something they prepare exceptionally well or incredibly badly?
If this seems like a lot to take in for just one visit to a restaurant, it is. At first, you’ll need to remind yourself what to look for. You may even take a checklist of details to make sure you don’t miss something. In time, however, your brain will soak up this information (and more) without you even being aware that it’s happening. You’ll take your seat and realize it’s an embarrassingly 1970s structure, overcrowded, smelling of ham, a yellowed porcelain menu sign above the kitchen opening, a lunch counter with eight, red swivel stools, the waitresses all wear black scruchies, patrons are almost all college age, the moose head is in fact on the wall… All of this will eventually be captured wthout even writing it down or recording it, but it takes practice. I recommend noting this stuff in your notebook just in case, no matter how solid your memory might be.
While the main exercise above involved observations about a restaurant in also involved a sub exercise about people. Similar observational examples might involve an automotive service station, a hair salon, school, police station or any number of places. The idea is to learn to truly experience and not merely momentarily populate the spaces we visit. The details and sensory images about the places, people and accessory elements of these places will make our writing come alive just as if our readers had visited these places with us.
Learning to notice and bring home the commonplace of our everyday lives becomes, for us, another form of writing.