Both my mind and my eyes routinely deceive me.
Though this sounds like the definition of insanity, it is also an explanation for phenomena like optical illusions, or why we perceive that the sun is sinking below the horizon when actually the Earth is moving. Sometimes my mind is right. Other times my eyes do a better job at getting at the truth.
When I draw, I depend exclusively on my eyes, even when I know they are lying. I recently considered the many ways my eyes deceive me when I am trying to render objects from life. Giant faraway objects like trees appear smaller than tiny objects like an apple that is right in front of me. Distant objects appear bluer than close ones. If I want to create a convincing illusion, I have to go with what my eyes tell me, even if my mind correctly argues.
When I write, as when I draw, I come face-to-face with assumptions about how things ought to be, and I have to make a conscious effort to see things as they really are.
A few of the assumptions I have held since childhood are: Unhappy people frown and happy people smile; the ocean is blue; grass is green. People are sad when misfortune falls and happy when things are going well.
However, these “obvious” assumptions are not always true. People do smile when happy, but sometimes they smile when they are wistful or even grieving. The seemingly self-contradictory expression, “she smiled sadly” creates a vivid image that resonates as honest because I have seen sad smiles before.
As colors go, grass is not always green, and the ocean is not always blue. Depending on the quality of the light, grass is sometimes bluish, and the ocean green. Dried grass appears brown and sometimes, during a storm, the ocean looks purple-grey.
Other limiting “common sense” notions that my experiences have destroyed since childhood are: vacations are fun; evil people never do anything good; and smart people never do anything stupid.
None of these assumptions have fully survived the test of my experience or even the court of my personal feelings.
I learned early that vacations are not always fun. I had many miserable ones as a kid. When I was twelve, my brother and I got food poisoning at a steakhouse; we spent our week-long beach vacation subsisting on crackers and reading Mad Magazine while lying on the camper bed as sunlight streamed through the window, taunting us. Look at me! I’m the sun and I’m extra bright today. Ever notice that sun rhymes with fun? Heh heh, fun is what you could be having if you could get out of bed without feeling queasy. You could be strolling along the beach eating ice cream. Remember when ice cream used to taste good?
As for “mean” people never doing anything nice, my worst bully in the sixth grade sometimes took a break from ridiculing me to compliment me on my hair. Although her deviation mainly confused me and failed to make my life any better, her compliment makes it hard to say that she was 100 per cent evil.
Some of my other pet notions have shattered only recently. One of them is about birds; I have always thought of birds as delicate, gentle creatures – and many are, especially in the South Carolina town where I grew up. However, I had to adapt to a new kind of bird when I moved to Florida and encountered pig-sized water fowl with muscular wings that generated torrents of wind as they flew, their beating wings like thunderclaps.
Recently I was standing on a Pompano Beach pier and looked up to see a cannonball hurtling toward me, which appeared to be on a collision course with my face. Before I could decide if I should duck or run, the cannonball, which turned out to be a pelican, struck the rail of the pier right in front of me, landing with surprising grace, and gazed wild-eyed at the ocean without offering a word of apology. The lingering fear of being impaled by its long beak left me breathless. This is not a bird, I thought, this is a dog with wings.
If I am ever unsure what to write about, I can always find inspiration by writing down all the things my mind thinks it knows, and comparing them to my actual experiences.
Honest observation is a hallmark of good writing, which – beyond external, objective truth – includes saying how you really feel rather than how you are supposed to feel.
The novels I loved most as an adolescent were the ones that admitted to thoughts and feelings I was afraid to admit myself. They made me want to write about my own experiences in the same fearlessly honest way.
However, when observing places or people for later writing projects I sometimes catch myself self-censoring details I have never seen described in books; at the beach I find myself focusing on the “azure” water, the sparkling wave tips, descriptions I have probably seen many times in novels, while ignoring the slimy seaweed and mud, or the bizarre-looking sea creature flailing on the sand that I have no name for. I have to make a conscious effort to see and appreciate details I have never seen described.
Author John Gardner touches on this filtering tendency in his book On Becoming a Novelist. He said that a teacher in a creative writing class asked students to watch a short skit involving a meeting between a mother, her son, and a psychiatrist. Students were asked to describe what they observed the actors doing. Gardner writes:
One of the most interesting things that happened in this psychodrama was that the woman playing psychologist, in trying to get him to explain himself, repeatedly held out her hands to him, then looped them back like a seaman drawing in rope, saying in gesture, “Come on, come on! What do you have to say?” – to which the son responded with sullen silence. When the drama was over and the descriptions by the class were read, not one student writer had caught the odd rope-pulling gesture. They caught the son’s hostile feet on the desk, the mother’s fumbling with her cigarettes, the son’s repeated swipes of one hand through his already tousled hair – they caught everything they had seen many times on T.V., but not the rope-pulling gesture.
To “write from life,” to write honestly, means honoring what you see even if it makes no sense or seems too weird or complex to fully grasp. An example of a weird human response to bad news happened in my tenth grade typing class.
When in the eighties my high school principal announced the Challenger explosion over the intercom, most students responded with expressions of disbelief; afterward, a somber silence settled over the classroom. One girl came to class late and, sensing something was wrong, asked what was the matter. Another girl told her the news. The tardy girl did not frown, cry, or express alarm; instead, she laughed, a single clipped chuckle.
Her friend asked, “Why did you laugh?” Blushing, the girl newcomer said, “All that build-up on the news, all the trouble they went to, all those documentaries, and this is how it ends?” She shrugged. “It just struck me as funny for some reason.”
A beginning fiction writer versed in the notion that the only “logical” response to tragedy is to frown or cry would be unlikely to include such an exchange in their stories. Through conscious observation writers build ever-increasingly complex models of human behavior, leading to writing that resonates with authenticity.
That is why studying the world when I am not writing is as important as when I am typing at my computer. I keep a file on my phone where I sketch my observations of people and places. At first, I try to observe without immediately attaching words to what I see. That ensures that my content is likely to be original. Otherwise I am likely to think thoughts like, “The water sparkled like diamonds,” a description I have seen in books too many times.
When I do record my impressions in my notepad, I try not to worry about the writing quality; instead I write what I see in language that is almost always awkward. I can always go back and revise my descriptions later if I want, but writing polished prose is not the point of this exercise.
Drawing from life creates a habit of looking for fresh details so that when I do write fiction, my memory has a ready store of original content from which to create. However, observing the world as it is and not as I expect it to be changes more than my writing; it changes me.
To write is to constantly question myself and my long-held assumptions about the world, to open myself to the possibility of surprise. To write is to enter a conflict between appearance and truth as I dive headlong into the eternal question: What is real?
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my story collection “Remembering the Future” is available for purchase on Amazon.