Writers and Observation

Observation is a crucial skill for the writer. That’s a given. However it is so much a given that it is almost hallow advice. Almost like saying a writer must write. Many will ask “what does it mean, (and not mean) to be observant in life, from the perspective of improving one’s writing?”

I think the question itself reveals some potential pitfalls. For while the best writers are often keen observers, I don’t imagine many of them would get far if their observations were based solely on collecting material. True, I keep a notebook with me most of the time, that I may write down any ideas of fragments that come to me on the moment, and many such fragments come about as the result of observing. Yet if I spent my day observing everything with the specific intention of finding something about which to write, or to otherwise find something to incorporate into my writing, I’d not only be a less effective writer, but probably more than a tad creepy.

Rather, a writer should observe because he is curious. Because he longs to understand as best he can the world around him and the people in it. A writer should feed his open mind so as to paint a picture of either the world as it is, or the world as he thinks it could be. He does this be observing human nature. Common motivations. Reactions. Plights and pleasures. In an ideal situation the writer becomes a sponge so he can one day act as a mirror, if you will.

That disgust, or fascination, that joy or dread, that acceptance or rebellion of what it is to be alive on earth…these are the things that fuel great writing I think. And while one can produce something of value simply be writing a story about what one sees, I’m willing to bet that most of the deepest, most moving, most shocking and memorable writing has actually sprung forth from this immersion into essence of life. Even if that just means watching from the safer distance of a reclusive life, the writer observes for the sake of learning, and then incorporate what he learns into his work.

Of course there is nothing wrong with trolling for material. All writers looking for a new angle or story line do so at some point. That too is part of the writer’s life. Yet like so many things, one approaches mastery not by obsessing over the actual activity, but by nurturing that within oneself that makes one long to be a master of a skill in the first place.

If you long to write, you probably already long to observe the world. To think about what you find, and to present it in some way. Give your attentions to that, and eventually the writing will take care of itself.

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