“A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.”
[Speech upon being awarded the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels (Peace Prize of the German Book Trade), Frankfurt Book Fair, October 12, 2003]
~ Susan Sontag
Labour Day Weekend has passed and your kids are all back to school so you should have a little more time on your hands to write. I know I was extremely busy the past weekend, finishing a couple of art commissions, which you can see on my personal blog, Creativity Unlimited, as well as in Facebook on Art ‘n’ Words. I’m back to editing and writing and preparing for a grand reunion of my high school class, the majority of whom I haven’t seen since out silver jubilee nearly 15 years ago and others I haven’t seen since we graduated from high school. Yet, it’s a connection I look forward to renewing because it’s a connection to the past, a former life I lived that played a pivotal role in my growth and development, in molding my thoughts and values and, in many ways, my spirit. It’s not often we are given the opportunity to revisit the past, but as writers, it often helps to explore every little thing we experienced, magnify it until it is larger than life, and mold it into all the stories that make up the canon of our lives. This is why we need to pay attention to the world around us because it is the macrocosm of the world within us.
As a literature and writing teacher, I can never emphasize enough the need for keen observation. It’s no different from being a scientist. Scientists depend on observation. They watch everything, observe everything, using all their senses. Even when scientists use machines to help them speed up or slow down certain processes or observe things at levels physically impossible to humans, those machines perform only what they are made to do and scientists still have to interpret the results they glean from machines. Machines help magnify details the naked eye cannot see, sounds the human ear cannot hear, flavors and smells our taste buds and olfactory senses are not always sophisticated enough to detect, or even textures too fine for our coarse skins to feel as anything other than smooth. It is closely paying attention to the world around them that gives scientists a basis for making generalizations and coming to conclusions. They would never be able to make predictions or estimations that would be even remotely probable. The same is true for writers. Without paying close attention to the world around them, writers would never be able to accurately describe behaviour, actions, reactions, relationships, or even settings, objects, and milieus. Without all the information they acquire from observation, writers would never be able to project what they know into fictional people or fantastic worlds. Regardless of what race or make characters are, regardless of their environment, we use what we know of people and our environment to make our stories as realistic as possible. It’s the only way our stories will be understood and appreciated by our readers who are, as far as we are concerned, human, and therefore sympathetic to anything identifiably human. No matter how alien, we like to imbue our characters with human-like behaviour because that is how humans interpret the rest of the world. Anything else would be, for want of a better word, too alien.