Writing

On Being A More Observant Writer (Or, Why Is There Still A Poinsettia In My Kitchen?)

Every fall, on the day after Thanksgiving, my family and I take part in our annual tradition of dragging out of all of the Christmas boxes, and competing in the, “Who can last the longest at putting up all of the decorations?” contest.

I always win.

On January 1st we hold another competition. This one’s called, “Who can last the longest at putting the decorations away?”

I also hold this title.

Yay me.

Yet today I noticed there is a Christmas poinsettia on top of my kitchen cabinet that has been there since November 26th, 2010.

Now, this isn’t the first time I realized it was there. Just like the inky miniature fingerprints that dot every doorway of my home, I noticed this green and red be-ribboned plant a couple of times right when guests were walking through our front door.

There was also the night I spied it through half-shut eyes as I slowly trudged to bed thinking, I’ll pull up a chair and grab it in the morning.

I didn’t.

Once I even noticed it while I was talking on the phone. I vowed to take it down as soon as my call was finished.

I forgot.

So, the days, and weeks, and months passed, and this happy (fake) little plant faded into the background, becoming a part of the everyday scenery. The same thing had happened with the purple streamers that hung from the lights three months after my daughter’s birthday. It had also happened when I stopped seeing the green paint spattered across our ceiling from the afternoon of Spin-Art-Gone-Wild.

But this morning, as I sat on the couch rubbing my eyes awake, I happened to look — really look — around the house, and I finally zeroed in on the target. And, ugh, I wanted to blow it up! How had I missed it for so long?

As a writer, I’m supposed to be observant — stashing away those finer details of the senses which I can later bring to life on the page in a way that makes readers think, “Wow! I understand.”

I enjoy doing this kind of writerly research. Citing the smells at a summer BBQ. Watching the way an elderly man grimaces while taking the stairs at the mall. Noting the pleading whine of toddler who only wants her mom to, “Look! Please look!”

A writer is supposed to soak in the minutia, letting it simmer and grow into something that will help the reader “see” better. A writer is supposed to discover and fix the holes in their story before a reader falls, breaks a leg, and sues for time lost to bad plotting. Yes, a writer should be aware of their surroundings.

And, still — there’s a poinsettia in my kitchen that has been there since November 26th, 2010.

Sometimes you have to remove yourself from a situation to see it more clearly. A fresh pair of eyes can bring things into focus. This is true for writing — what with our first readers, critique groups, editors, and the approval of our spouse/friends/mailman.

It’s also true for life.

We get busy. We take the scenery for granted. We become blind to the little things until they smack us across the head via a “helpful” medium. Like a neighbor who wonders why we still have paper snowflakes on our windows in June.

I’m at a point in my current work-in-progress where I’m adding the dazzle. Fleshing out the bare bones to (hopefully) make the the images, the characters, and the story sing. My eyes are open. Wide.

So I’m staring at this poinsettia, and at the chair that I can use as my step-stool to rectify the problem in five seconds flat. And then I think, Christmas is less than six months away.

I’m leaving it.

What little things around your home do you no longer see? Writers, what do you do to capture the details for your readers? Where do you conduct your writerly “research?”

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Find me on Twitter @amandahoving

33 thoughts on “On Being A More Observant Writer (Or, Why Is There Still A Poinsettia In My Kitchen?)”

  1. Yes, I agree! The poinsettia has to stay until you replace it with another one next Christmas.
    Oh, the stories your poinsettia could tell! It must have witnessed a lot of happy cooking, refrigerator raids etc. 🙂
    I liked a lot the image of the reader that falls in the holes in the story. Well… I’m still in one piece. 😉

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  2. I confess that I’ve blinded myself to many things around my house (and garden) to keep from distracting myself from writing. And yes, I’ve used the “it’s too late now” excuse to keep from taking care of something I should have done weeks or months ago. 🙂

    I’ve got a “few” years more living experience than you, so there’s a whole database of writerly observances in my head. I’ve shared before that I do a lot of “writing” with my eyes closed, watching the scenes like a movie and observing the details. And, of course, we have the Internet for research. I can’t imagine writing without it. It’s especially great for pulling up photos of places and things you can’t quite picture clearly.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Linda. It’s very hard to remember life without the internet, isn’t it? We actually had to wait a few minutes, hours or even days to find information.

      Love your image of “watching the scenes.” It’s wonderful when it happens that way.

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  3. I constantly have to remind myself to use all my senses for observation, not just my eyes. What does this place smell like? What does this texture feel like? Does it taste? I’m not a very good observer. You know, I think I still have some Christmas ornaments on my bookshelf.

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    1. Up until about 2 weeks ago, I still had a thin strand of gold beads above my family room window. How many times had I walked past those? About a million.

      Yes, I often neglect smell and texture. Sight seems the most obvious, but these other senses can really make an image pop!

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  4. What little things around my home do I no longer see? I live in an ancient house with endless incomplete projects…. and most of the time I don’t see the unfinished parts, but every once in a while my many poinsettias look me in the eye. And they are not nearly as pretty as yours, let me tell you! As for writerly research, that’s one of my very favorite parts of this job–I am on the watch every place we go! (p.s. I think the poinsettia gives your kitchen some character, must be a real conversation starters with friends of teenagers! 🙂

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  5. I have to write things down, or else I forget about some basic housekeeping tasks.

    I’ve been meaning to clear an old pile of magazines. *stares at them*

    I like to write about small details (stains, the color of furniture, etc.), but I do this sparingly. I dislike books with pages of description.

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  6. Our Christmas lights remain on the house year round : ) But yes, I notice things, then completely forget that I’ve noticed them. I usually have to write everything down that I need to remember or else it will never come back to me.

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  7. Great post and excellent conclusion. I’d leave it there too! But seriously, how true that fresh eyes make all the difference in general. They give us the gift of PERSPECTIVE!

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  8. I’ve done the same thing. I have this box of Christmas decorations for the things i forgot. I leave it out and open in the basement all year. It’s amazing how much it fills up. You know, I have to wash the Christmas towels before putting them away, and the Christmas throws, and then one of the kids has a sleepover and I need all of the blankets I can get and I use the Christmas throw again. My Christmas towels are still on my dryer. Great analogy about writing. I wonder who I can get to read my first half of a book?

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  9. Just this week I noticed the sticky remains of a piece of scotch tape on our living room wall that must have held up a crepe paper streamer. I removed the cellophane then rubbed my finger over the sticky remains until it became a little ball of stickiness. My daughters are 25 and 30…that would mean it had to have been there at least 10 years or more…and yet I probably noticed it only once a year. Finally, it’s not there any more.
    In my posts I’m writing family stories that are so clear in my mind. I research the details talking with family, looking at photo albums…old record albums too. Googling vintage items, pulling out scrapbooks, and many letters I have kept from my dad, mother and grandmothers. Most of it comes from memory, tho’.
    I do enjoy commenting on blogs because that’s when I most write about the here and now.

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    1. Your research sounds very interesting, georgette. Even moreso to know that it’s the history of your family.

      I think just about every room in my house has some sort of leftover tape on the wall. It adds character, right? 🙂

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  10. I agree with KLZ’s comment above. I think I ignore a lot of the mess of my house because it comes down to clean or write. Then I go through mad purges where I try to take care of a bunch of piles/projects/scary closets all at once. It works for awhile. . . . Lately, I’ve been doing “take five” with the family. Everyone has to find 5 things that they can recycle, donate, or trash. It takes some of the burden off of me, except for the fact that I live with pack rats. 🙂

    As for research, I do a lot on line, though I love good history books tool. I take notes in Word Docs, and go back through them as I write. I keep a slim notebook in my purse and write ideas and impressions down all the time. Mostly, I close my eyes and imagine, as Linda writes above.

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  11. Yeah, I’d definitely leave the poinsettia. Don’t feel bad though – my parents still have their Christmas tree up. It’s now decorated with American flags in honor of the 4th of July.

    I purposely become less observant in my house because I’d go completely insane if I noticed our messes in so much detail. I think of it as my little gift to my family.

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  12. Just this week I posted a bit about being more observant as a way to jumpstart your creativity. One of the suggestions a professor had given me years ago was to keep an image journal. Each day record a complete image in your notebook. It could be one sentence or half a page. It doesn’t need to be fancy or perfect writing. Just get it down. Use all of your senses. Don’t rely on sight alone. Maybe you won’t use these images directly in your writing but the journal will help you become more aware of the world around you.

    http://www.thewriterssalon.com/2011/07/reclaim-your-creativity.html

    PS – If you hadn’t mentioned the plant was fake I would have been impressed by your telepathic power to keep it alive all of these months. 🙂

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  13. About two weeks ago I went on a hike with a photographer friend of mine – it was a revealing lesson in observation.

    Now, I walk several miles daily, and it makes a tremendous difference in my writing. I use the time to brainstorm and develop ideas and to search my soul for the messages I truly want my words to convey. Of course, the pumping blood works wonders on my mental clarity, too.

    But hiking with my photographer friend was a different experience all together. His eyes were finely attuned to small details of the natural landscape that I’d been completely oblivious to: The homes of small mammals, oddly shaped fungal growths on fallen trees, and turtles in the stream. It truly “opened my eyes” to the world around me in a way I wasn’t used to.

    Throughout my writing process, I tend to spend too much time in my head instead of observing the world in front of me. All writers could benefit from developing a photographer’s eye, and I’ll certainly work toward it myself.

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