The benefits of noticing

Noticing cloudsAs my flight to Santa Fe, New Mexico awaited take off, I flicked on my Kindle. Work had to wait until the magic 10,000 foot elevation that signaled that I could pull out my laptop. Until then, I glanced through the myriad titles on my Kindle. One caught my attention. Wired to Create. I vaguely recalled the book and was surprised to see I’d previously read almost half of it. Perhaps I’d remember more if I picked up where I left off.

Within minutes, the authors were reminding me of the value of paying attention (rather ironic since I couldn’t remember anything I’d previously read in this book). They explained how essential truly seeing things is to the creative process. As I read the words, I realized something both profound and rather sad.

It hit me that not only had I stopped noticing. I’d stopped noticing that I’d stopped noticing. In the busyness of daily business, I’d ceased to value the pause. The look. The curiosity of seeing something for the first time or as if for the first time.

And so, although on a trip for business, I decided to be intentional. I would strive to see, to appreciate. Here are just a few of the things that I beheld in new ways.

Clouds

When you look at a cloud, what do you really see there? I don’t mean just the child’s ability to discern circus animals, a car driving through a donut or other fanciful imaginings. What exactly are you seeing in a cloud? Shape? Texture? Color? Proximity? Size? Variation? Familiarity? Why is it shaped the way it is? Is it a cirrus, cumulus or stratus cloud? Do you even know the difference (I had to look them up)? How can what makes up that cloud be the same thing we drink in a glass or that sinks ocean liners? Clouds are wonders, truly. But too often for me they don’t even register.

Weather

Notice weatherI sat through my meetings in Santa Fe looking out on a wet day. I seem to endure weather rather than notice it. But in a town that gets 350 sunny days a year, beholding downpours throughout the day got my attention. Then, as we wrapped up our meetings, the sun came out. So my colleagues and I headed out for a stroll around town before dinner. Near Santa Fe’s cathedral, I noticed something that rarely registers: moisture on the road. In any other place, this might be commonplace. But here in Santa Fe, that wet street was a thing of beauty, particularly in the late afternoon light. I even paid attention to the manhole cover, as well as the more obvious colonnade and the uneven lines of its roof. An ordinary scene made profoundly beautiful not just by the weather, but by my seeing the weather in the scene.

Noticing peopleThe human element

I wanted to take a photo of the Loretto Chapel just because…well, I think because I was in tourist mode and felt it was something I should photograph. I’d been there before and had seen the famed spiral staircase built by an itinerant carpenter in a manner that defies logic as to how it can stand without support. All that initially occupied my thinking. But then I noticed the human element. A wedding. And in the doorway, the newlyweds having wedding photos shot. A whole story right before me that so easily could have been lost in the focus on the architecture itself.

Geometry

Noticing geometryI rarely pay attention to or name the shapes of things. Yet, in learning to draw, that’s exactly what I must do. If I were to draw this building, a gallery in Santa Fe, I wouldn’t think, “Door. Gateway. Fence. Window.” Those labels evoke stereotypes of what a door, fence, window, etc. should be. Thus, I’m more likely to draw the stereotype than the actual scene before me. But if I put aside the labels and see what is there, I behold mostly squares and rectangles, with a trapazoid or two thrown in their due to the slope of the street. I see what is there, not what I think is there.

The unusual

Noticing the unusualI looked down an alley. This row of cow skulls being sold alongside other Southwestern decor items grabbed my attention. When did you last see a row of dead cow heads hanging on the wall (at pretty prices as well)? But what I really noticed was the size of the eye socket. Cows have big eyes.

Seasons

Noticing seasonsYes, I’ve noticed that fall is here. Yes, I’ve even commented to my wife at home that the leaves are changing. But no, I haven’t bothered to appreciate the beauty of this season until a few bright trees framed Santa Fe’s cathedral nicely. It wasn’t just the leaves I noticed. The overall light of this evening in this place at this time of year. All that registered in a way I rarely allow in part, I believe, because I was not at home. Travel helps us perceive exactly what we see at home but in new ways.

Window displays

Noticing windowsThe entire intent of a window display is to get us to notice. But as an avid non-shopper, a store’s arrangement of goods barely gets a glance from me. But here in Santa Fe, now in the evening, the stores were closed. And when I ceased to think about them as stores and more as repositories of items that warranted my attention, I discovered a world of curiosities. Including a very well-to-do angel.

Final thoughts

It’s so easy for me to think that I don’t have the time to notice everything around me. But let me reframe that. Maybe I don’t have the time NOT to notice. Life is too short not to appreciate the fullness of it all around me. Autopilot works really well for getting us through each day. Habits help. Routines make us efficient. But just getting through the day isn’t enough, is it?

Try this. Don’t worry about suddenly having to pay attention to everything around you. Just tell yourself that you will notice one new thing each day. One thing you’ve never really seen before or that maybe you’ve beheld, but never truly seen. One thing. That’s it. Then try it again tomorrow and the next day.

Now stop looking at this screen and go take a look at a world that is just waiting to be seen.

 

Use your words: Why it helps to write things down

Use your words: Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia

I remember the place – Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain – but how I felt at the time or other details? All a blur. I should have used my words…

Use your words

When our sons were little, they’d reach a point of either frustration or excitement where they couldn’t convey their intent. Gestures, crying, repeating the same undecipherable jumble always resulted in our same, calming response: “Use your words.”

Now that I’m older, I have to remind myself of that advice. When traveling to a new place that makes me so giddy with excitement to see more, I can easily put the arm-waving, up-and-down jumping, glee squeaking gyrations of my children to shame. At least on the inside. I do try and retain some external decorum. Try.

But then, after the initial wave of enthusiasm passes and especially later when I attempt to recount the wonder of a place to others, I hit a snag. I can remember the emotions and some of the details, but I can’t always connect the two in ways that make sense to others.

Why? Because I didn’t use my words. I didn’t write down the details of both the place and my response to it right away. As a result, that moment is gone and the specifics that made it so special are, at least partially, lost.

Write it down right away

Earlier, we looked at how details can make your writing more interesting and the free guide, Come Closer: A Novelist’s Approach to Capturing Details. But how and even when you capture those details matters in your ability to use them well later.

The prolific travel writer Tim Cahill addresses this in his story, “The Place I’ll Never Forget” found in the collection An Innocent Abroad edited by Don George. In trying to recount experiences later he notes:

“…it occurred to me that the stories I told would benefit from more detail. I couldn’t just experience something and expect to have it etched indelibly into my memory. I had to give names to the colors and odors and feel of things. I had to assess my own feelings, which gave emotion to the landscape. And I needed to do it on the spot because travel often doesn’t allow you to backtrack.”

That’s vital for writers and artists to remember: If we don’t capture the details and our emotional response to them while we’re right there, we’re rarely given a second chance. Time and memory quickly distort our recollections of the moment.

When it comes to using your words, Cahill notes:

“Some people are certain they can recall such physical and emotional experiences through their photographs. I can’t argue the point, though feeling through a lens is a rare talent and one I don’t possess. I need to put words to sensations and emotions to own them forever. Whenever I can’t figure something out and take a photograph rather than a note, I know I’m losing the scene forever.”

Use your words to capture what lies beneath the surface

I love photography. But I’m finding that like Cahill, sometimes a photograph can’t capture what he refers to as the “interior landscape,” our internal response to the external scene. Taking notes as soon as we can after the experience allows us to record both what we see and feel. We begin to find meaning in the experience right there because we’re processing it in real time.

I still tend to rush into and out of a scene, clicking away and hoping I can later reconstruct through images what occurred there. But increasingly, I’m trying to pause amidst the excitement of the place and at least scribble down or record verbally my reaction to it. Images matter and are a great resource for reviewing later for details. But if you want to capture those details and the meaning behind them, do what we told our kids.

Use your words.

 

How to make your writing more interesting and memorable

How to make your writing more interesting: Image of The Gatteaux Family by Ingres

The Gatteaux Family by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

Want to make your writing or your art more interesting? Want it to stand out and be remembered better? Want readers to be able to visualize with great clarity what you’re writing about?

Add details.

There it is. Details. That’s the big secret, or at least one of them for crafting more interesting fiction and non-fiction and adding layers to your art.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent book, The Sense of Style, which sentence can you mentally picture (and thus likely retain) better:

“The set fell on the floor” or “The ivory chess set fell on the floor”?

Only two words differentiate the two sentences, yet that detail makes the second sentence more concrete. You can picture the ivory chess set better.

The ways in which you present details are as diverse as the types of writing you might do. But here are two considerations.

First, for fiction, use details to add depth and clarity to your descriptions. “It was a dark and moonless night” doesn’t make you feel the night as well as, “The darkness oppressed her, like the blackness of a cave, complete and unyielding.”

For non-fiction, wherever possible, use examples (as I just did above). Examples offer details while also providing an analogy the reader can relate to.

Details are your friend. But how do you go about making their acquaintance? You can rely on your imagination. But your imagination will grow if you learn to collect details and stockpile them for later.

Travel helps us in this regard. When we go out into the world with our eyes open and our notebooks or cameras or sketchpads at hand, we can see and then capture details we’d otherwise miss. We then bring back these small treasures to our studios for use in our work. Anyone can do this, but it helps to know some shortcuts and techniques. And where might one find such helpful tips?

I just completed a new paper, just for you, my guide to capturing and collecting details. It’s a free resource here if you’ve signed up on the site. I call it Come Closer: The Novelist’s Approach to Collecting Details because the basic concept came from an interview with a novelist I read many years ago. He described traveling to a city, for example, where a scene for his next book would take place. But instead of writing all the details about the whole city, he would find one interesting street corner and then document that thoroughly. He’d then have some great details he could throw into his descriptions that provided authenticity and made the scene more compelling.

I liken it to an Ingres drawing. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the 19th century French painter, is considered one of history’s finest draftsman. His drawings, such as the one above, are exquisite, but what I appreciate is his isolated use of extreme detail. In the above image, the background is a mere suggestion. Even the clothing is rendered with the minimal lines needed to convey meaning. But look at the faces. They are meticulously drawn. Ingres used details where they mattered and didn’t waste the effort in areas where they don’t. And so should we.

If you want to make your writing more interesting, check out the guide to capturing details. The beauty of it is that you’ll learn tips and techniques that will not only make you a better writer or artist, they’ll improve how you travel as well.

 

How to travel like a beginner – Part 2

Travel like a beginner: Airline seats

Even veteran flyers can find wonders in the often cramped space of an airline seat

How to travel like a beginner…or maybe not

This past week, I attempted to travel like a beginner, a novice unfamiliar with words like bulkhead, elite line or overhead bin.

I tried to view air travel as a newbie.

I failed.

Why it’s hard to travel like a beginner

I think I was doomed before I ever threw my carryon into the trunk of my car. While I laud the ideal of “beginner’s mind” and the underlying desire to experience afresh all the novelty of the first time, I believe I went about it the wrong way. What I found is that you cannot unknow what you know.

I tried to picture how a less experienced version of me would have reacted to travel. But instead of a deeper appreciation for the now and a deeper awareness of the experience as I had it, I spent more time in my imagination, filtering and speculating. Better would have been to concentrate on simply noticing more.

Boo hoo for me and my experiment to travel like a beginner. However, my efforts helped remind me of a few insights about air travel both good and bad that may be helpful to you as well. Let’s start with the challenges.

The hard part

  •  Airplane travel is a pain in the rear. Literally and figuratively. With newer seats being narrower and older seats having virtually no bottom cushion left, sitting for six hours leaves certain areas of one’s anatomy feeling like they’ve been dry iced. And then there’s the issue of proximity. Where else in our modern lives do we let complete strangers into our personal space for hours? Not seconds in a cramped elevator, or minutes on a crowded bus or subway car. Hours. As the shuttle driver kindly informed me on the ride to the airport, “You’d be amazed how many people never shower before getting on a plane. I had a guy here last week that made the shuttle bus wait so he could get one last toke on his joint (it’s legal here in Washington). I would not like to have sat wedged in next to him on a long flight.” And yet we do.
  • The airlines seem intent on making travel harder for us. Check out this insightful article on how the airlines’ make you suffer and see if it doesn’t resonate.
  •  Solo travel is better for noticing. On the first of many flights last week, I traveled with colleagues. We had some wonderful conversations. But my ability to be present and pay attention to the experience of travel crashed. You can’t pay attention to your surrounding and your conversation at the same time. Or at least I couldn’t.

Now on to the positives.

The good part

  •  Airplanes gets me where I want to go. Pretty obvious, but important. As my friend Al has told me, “I don’t like to travel. I like to have arrived.” Me too. But we forget that 100 years ago the same trip that takes us five hours would have taken five days and two hundred years ago, five months or more.
  • I can’t recreate a first-time thrill, but I can relive it. The few times I was able to travel like a beginner — but only with conscious effort — were on takeoff and landing. Try it. Next time the wheels leave or touch the runway, remind yourself of how amazing it is, what you feel in your stomach and what a marvel for something as big and heavy as a plane to fly.
  • I get to meet some wonderful people. That forced intimacy makes conversations easier. I can participate in the life of a stranger in ways I never would in other settings. And while most chats are superficial, some of those conversations can be life-changing.
  • I realize how entitled I am. The hassle of travel makes me aware of how much I take space and “my rights” for granted. Discomfort can be revealing.
  • I find space to reflect and create. I intentionally do NOT use wifi on a plane unless in a business “emergency” (determined by me, not by others). Airline cabins are one of the few locations you can’t be called or, without wifi, bothered. How many places do we have left for quiet reflection and concentration? When I see my airline seat as a sanctuary—albeit a very crammed one — it changes how I view my entire trip.

What might change your view of travel? Try being present to the experience of it. You too may find more to air travel than just getting to your destination. Just be aware about those seat cushions…