Writing and the Creative Life: Look… don’t overlook

“We usually don’t look. We overlook.” — Alan Watts

I write this post as much for myself as anybody else. I need to remind myself to stop. Step out of the maelstrom of modern life — email, text, cell phone, internet, social media — all of those trappings we associate with interconnectivity and productivity… and engage with the world directly.

For all those modern trappings can easily become trap things, capturing our creativity, imprisoning our imagination.

We need to stop and simply… look around.

Stop and… see.

We miss so much of life as we race from task to task. Our eyes flit about, scanning our surroundings and various surfaces flinching with virtual existence.

Yet in that constant looking, drilling down deep into the long tail of news, culture and all the rest of the flotsam and jetsam that bombards us at our desks each day, each hour, every minute…

What are we seeing? Are we seeing anything at all? Are we overlooking the very vibrancy and vitality of life?

Look at this.

It’s a peach. I chose it because yesterday I ate one. I’ve been adding more fruit to my diet and so I went about my business, dashing downstairs from my office, grabbing a knife and cutting board, snaring the piece of fruit, then dutifully slicing it into sections.

I took a bite. And it was magnificent. Perfect combination of sweet and tangy. The taste literally stopped me cold.

So I looked at the fruit.

The colors red, orange, yellow. The texture glistening. The curvature of the skin. A piece of fruit revealing something of its essence to me and adding to my pleasure in eating it…

Because I ceased my frenzy of activity and simply focused my attention on this single object.

I saw it.

As writers in order for us to have any hope of securing a meaningful degree of understanding of a story universe and its characters, we have to see… not scan. We have to be… not do. We have to look… not overlook.

We need to see the faces and features of our characters.
We need to see their home and work environments.
We need to see the way they interact with each other.
We need to see the expressions they use when they are in public… and in private.
We need to see their memories and fantasies.
We need to see them when they are joyous and when they are sad.
We need to see them on the move and in quietude.
We need to see them dancing, fighting, praying, and playing.

And to really grasp who they are, we need to see them doing some truly mundane things… such as eating a peach. How do they approach this task? Do they use a knife or just bite into the fruit? Are they nibblers or do they chomp away? Do they use a napkin to wipe that drip of juice on their chin or do they backhand it away with their shirt sleeve? Do they eat all of the peach or take only a few bites, then toss it aside?

How do they eat a peach? Pose that as a writing exercise the next time you sit down with a character you are developing. You might learn a lot about them from this simple activity.

And that’s really the point: The more we know about our characters, the more we see them, the more they will lead us into the story and show us the way through it.

But in order to get there, we first have to stop with all the hustle, bustle and hurly-burly of our daily existence.

In order to see… we need to look, not overlook.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

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