The Elusive Treasure of Honest Observation

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.

7 thoughts on “The Elusive Treasure of Honest Observation

  1. If you ever doubt you’re a gifted writer (which you better not do) take a look at these zingers:

    “I…encountered pig-sized water fowl with muscular wings that generated torrents of wind as they flew, their beating wings like thunderclaps.”


    “This is not a bird, I thought, this is a dog with wings.”

    I am jealous of your talent, but fortunately I care about you very much, so I’ll do my best to stomp it out of my insecure soul! 😉


    p.s. I miss you on Twitter!
    Kitt tweeted your article today, and I’ll do it too…..well, right after I finish writing this comment!

    p.p.s. I am SO DISAPPOINTED with you-know-what.
    (It rhymes with “Flublisher”)
    Gotta update you on the most recent bulls*t!

    • I am so happy to hear from you Dyane!! I miss you too. I have actually been missing Twitter some lately. Trying to figure out how I can keep up with my friends despite my absence. Or go back on Twitter in such a way that I can stay sane.

      Thanks so much for your awesome compliment!!! I’m glad you like my writing! No reason to be jealous. I LOVE your writing a lot of other people do too; your blogs always get liked and shared so much when I post them on Facebook, and with good reason. You rock!!! Can’t wait until October when your book comes out!!!

      I’d be very interested in knowing how your publishing experience is going when you get the time. I know you must be under a lot of pressure. Thanks for tweeting my article! I’m flattered that Kitt did.

      And I see nothing at all wrong with “sparkling Pacific.” I never meant to suggest that word should never be used to describe water. In fact it is used a lot for a reason. It creates an image. I was really just referring to my own tendency to go with the obvious without exploring other possibilities.

      Thanks again for the awesome comment! You’re the best! XOXO

  2. p.s. I used a horrible line in my book” “sparkling Pacific” – I shall go to Hades for my sin!
    Actually, since I didn’t tack on diamonds, I get a reprieve, don’t I?

  3. Loved this, “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.”

    You know, it wasn’t until I started asking my bf, “Did you see that woman?” “Did you see ….?” and his inevitable replies of, “No” that I began to realize that paying attention is not something that everyone naturally does.

    I actually love it. It feels like a superpower sometimes. You can make it a game or just your regular state of being. At this point, it comes quite naturally. And I feel lucky that I have this gift. 😀

    Ha! I was in junior high when the Challenger exploded. You’re older than me! I had no idea. I thought I was the old one!

    • Glad you liked my post Lani!!
      It’s awesome that being hyper-observant to your surroundings comes naturally to you! I actually have to train myself to observe; as an introvert I tend to focus inward on my thoughts and feelings and I miss things. One of the great things about writing is that it motivates me to look outside myself and I’m sometimes very surprised, even shocked, by what I find.

      And yes, I was in high school during the Challenger explosion. I was actually wondering if anyone would do the math. Haha!! Darn your super powers of observation!! I wonder if you could use them to bring down Trump!!! 😉

  4. Excellent post! I definitely agree that what we have learned to see and what we can actually see when we truly look are often very different things. The same holds true in our ways of thought I have found. One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of philosophy is to uncover hidden assumptions, beliefs, and categories that may be altering one’s logic unknowingly. Oftentimes to truly explore a dilemma hinges on willingly shedding all discoverable preconceptions, just as to see something as it really is – as you have pointed out – requires the shedding of common expectations. There is a great passage from Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” which communicates this point as well:

    “Our eye finds it more comfortable to respond to a given stimulus by reproducing once more an image that it has produced many times before, instead of registering what is different and new in an impression . . . just as little do we see a tree exactly and completely with reference to leaves, twigs, color, and form; it is so very much easier for us simply to improvise some approximation of a tree.”

    Anyway, I definitely second dyane’s compliments/quotes regarding your giftedness as a writer!

    I am very much enjoying The Age of Erring and Other Tales. The Mechanical Siren was awesome 🙂 Can’t wait to read more of it and review it in the near future!

    • Thanks for sharing your insights Cliff! I enjoy your philosophical perspective on the subject of shedding preconceptions to see things as they actually are. Clear-sightedness is so basic to writing well, yet not always easy, and Nietzsche nailed the problem in the quote you shared! Makes me want to read “Beyond Good and Evil”.

      Thanks, too, for the wonderful compliments on my writing!!! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post and that you’re enjoying “The Age of Erring” so far!!! Can’t wait to find out what you think of the rest!

      I’m looking forward to your next project too! Your books on epistemology often come back to me when I’m writing. They intersect with my skeptical bent and my obsession with seeing the world as it really is. Having bipolar disorder, I am always conscious of how easily my mind can deceive me.

      Thanks again for the shares and your kind comments!!! 🙂

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