Tag Archives: life

Paying Attention

Well.  I don’t think I need to point out that my last post was for the New Year.  *cough*  Things never do slow down, do they?  Sometimes, just when we hope we’re settling into a nice rhythm, life has a way of raising a maelstrom around us.  I had all manner of good resolutions about keeping current with this blog and everything else.  Hey, I even wanted to have a real website up and running in January.  I haven’t even had a moment to spare for working on that.

At any rate.  That’s not exactly what I wanted to write about today.  I actually wanted to write a little about what goes on inside a writer’s mind, because, somehow, I get the feeling that writers have a tendency to see the world a little bit…differently…than other people.

Artists see the harmony of shapes and colors, the contrast of lights and shadows, the perfect composition of a scene.  Musicians hear the melodies in everything, the poetry in speech and emotion, the movement of harmonies that speaks a language more subtle than words.  (To take a peculiar and crazy fun example of this, go watch a few of Pogo’s musical compositions. I recommend this one – Kadinchey – in particular. This amazing musician has the uncanny ability of hearing the song in everyday speech and sounds. Very cool.)

Anyway. So, artists have their way of seeing the world, and musicians have a way of hearing the world. And writers, well, writers have a way of writing the world. It’s sort of a constant internal process (and it can be kind of annoying when the inner writer doesn’t know when to shut her mouth).  Everything we see and experience, the wheels are turning in our heads — How would you describe this building?  What color is that, exactly?  What kind of physiological feeling am I experiencing, exactly?  

That last one is the one I — in a weird sort of way — enjoy a lot.  Maybe this is disturbing, or maybe it’s neat, I don’t know, but when I’m writing, I’ve actually gotten to the point where I can cause myself to feel most emotions my characters experience.  Of course, emotions come with physiological effects.  Fear makes your skin prickle and your heart race.  Sorrow, longing and regret give a twisting, tugging, sick ache in the heart, while the throat burns and the whole body stings.  Realization of something terrible makes the blood drain away, slow or all at once.

The really, really strong emotions are harder — overwhelming, paralyzing terror, for instance — but the others are relatively simple to conjure up.  Then I can sit there and analyze the physical sensation and say, hm, well, this isn’t exactly a chill but more prickly and creeping…how would you put that into words?  Or — Yes, when you’re scared, everyone knows your heart pounds or hammers.  But how else can you describe that sensation?  What new words can breathe life into old metaphors?

The world is full of things that need writing.  For example, when the sun has set, but before the blue dusk covers the sky, what color is that?  Like in this person’s amazing picture — that color there behind the clouds?  Is it purple, really?  Is it really blue?  To me it feels silver-blue.  When you hear the sound of a strange bird, like this, do you just say it’s a bird call?  Maybe a bird song?  But is that really what you hear?  I heard this the other morning, maybe at 5:30 or so?  There must have been thirty birds calling back and forth with this song.  I listened to it trail away into the distance, and knew it was a goose call.  Canada goose, to be precise.  But how do you describe it?  It’s not your typical goose honk.  There’s a haunting, clarion quality to it, something that evokes the call of horns and bells.

I guess all this is to say that, when you want to write, the first rule of writing visual, visceral narrative is to pay attention to the world around you.  Now, can dramatic descriptions be overdone, dripping with the amethyst grandeur of verbal luminosity?  I.e., can it become purple prose?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Writer Beware.  But sometimes the best way to imbue real depth, feeling, and vividness into your writing is to learn how to overdo it first, and then learn how to apply it tastefully later.

Think of how a pianist, just learning, will play all songs either sforzando or pianissimo.  All transitions will feel abrupt and artificial.  But slowly, they will learn to be subtle, applying just the right dynamic shifts to delight without drawing attention to its skillful use.  This is the goal for writers, too, to become in some way invisible, to let the writing speak as subtly as a breeze.  As you read, you feel, and see, and smell the world of the novel, and your stomach tightens with the hero’s fear, or turns to butterflies with the hint of new love, but you don’t really pay attention to how it happens.  If you go back over and read again with an eye to the actual writing style, maybe then you’ll be struck by the lovely turns of phrase or elegant metaphors.  But they’re not purple.  They don’t beat you over the head with how brilliant they are.  They’re just there, like the world.

Writers — pay attention to the world around you.  Write everything you see and hear and feel, at least in your mind.  Then you can better create new worlds where the reader can live…without even realizing they’ve been transported.