Writers are supposed to be observant, right? Sometimes I wonder if I have what it takes since I tend to sail through life without really paying attention to details in detail. For instance, I’ve run in Pacific Spirit Park for years with my girlfriends. When a snowstorm last December brought down over 200 trees I didn’t “see” that a bridge railing had been knocked off until I noticed the section had been replaced. The new wood caught my eye, not the gaping hole I’d already run by a few times.
But then many of us don’t pay attention to details. How many of us have had a haircut and our significant other doesn’t even notice? Or a house you walked by for years is knocked down and a new one is going up and you can’t remember what the old one looked like?
I’ve discovered that this ability to not “see” what is actually there is given the term inattentional blindness (or sometimes called attentional blindness). Remember the person in a gorilla suit that walked across the basketball court mid-game and was not seen? (The study at Harvard University by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris)
Our brain can only take in so much detail at once. Also, I think many of us look at the world in the big picture way and not the “pay attention to all the little details” way. But then at other times smaller details can conjure up “the big picture” in great detail.
For example, when we walk into a house and a turkey is cooking in the oven I would guarantee (for those of us that celebrate with turkey) that an image comes to mind beyond the mere vision of a turkey in the oven. We may think of what else is included in the special meal, who will be there, what music will be playing, etc., etc.
Take another example. When we are driving, if a firetruck and then an ambulance goes by we may wonder what has happened, and our minds may envision an accident with injured people and road closures and such. And for those with medical training (I’m a physiotherapist), we may think about the injuries in more detail, bringing helicopters in to medi-vac patients to the hospital, surgeons at the ready, blood everywhere, etc.
If you think about it, no matter what these smaller details make us think of, they are based on past experience. All of us can envision acute in-depth details without the actual landscape physically in front of us.
Thus, the magic of writing and using sensory details. Can one word be worth a thousand images?
I came across an article called Do You Think Like Sherlock Holmes? by Maria Konnikova. I found it fascinating how Conan Doyle has been able to build Holmes’s character with such ‘relentless mental energy’ that he pays attention to all the details (and thus solves the crime.) The secret is that Holmes both sees and observes, which apparently is central to mindfulness.
So, as authors, if we practice mindfulness it may help improve our problem solving skills, enhance our imagination, give more depth to our writing, and improve our productivity. I know that when I write a scene I “see” it in more detail than I normally notice the world around me. What about you?
I am creating a great story, albeit not flushed in full detail yet and probably won’t be by the deadline (the proverbial optimist speaking). The beginning and middle have been set up well, but I may need to scramble to The End and fill in more connections later.
To me this is already a successful project: new story, new characters, new setting and a new style of writing. To others, it will depend on your measure of success.
And by Feb 5th I need to learn to compile in Scrivener, the great writing software I’m still learning to use.
Oh, and in case you missed it, did you see the squirrel happily eating in the tree in my top picture?