One of my biggest pitfalls as a writer has been my obliviousness. By that I mean, I had all the tools I needed to observe the world as a child: curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to get close enough to see things that adults overlook. And as an adult my observation skills have eroded to the point where a dog could lift a leg on my shoe and let fly before I noticed the dog at all. Well, maybe I’m not that oblivious, but almost. There are people who never lost their natural ability to see the wonders and crazy things all around them. Some of them happen to be writers, some are not. And some people, who want to be better writers must re-train themselves to see the world again. And then train themselves to see it in a new way (as I wrote in my last post).
Charles Baxter devotes part of a chapter in his book (part of Graywolf Press‘s The Art of Series) Subtext to this curious phenomenon of not seeing that has become epidemic in highly technological societies. He suggests that this obliviousness has to do with self-absorptions, indifference, and the inability to react. And this “not seeing” includes “not hearing.” People no longer pay attention to each other, or even to themselves, for that matter. This lack of attention may be a defense mechanism or it may be a symptom of wide-spread narcissism. That’s not for me to say. My point is, as a writer I cannot afford to not pay attention to everything around me.
Digital literacy is a relatively new field which by its nature mines unexplored and/or experimental territories. It can teach us in new ways how to see the world around us. Washington State University’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program has posted its student research gallery for viewers to sample. Liz Wade’s Accidental Findings: A Photographic Challenge exhibit showcases her work in digital media and photography. What if other artists, such as writers, took similar approaches to busting out of old habits of seeing?
Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected. As a photographer, I usually decide where to take a picture. I think about the nature of the photo, its subject, its meaning, its style. Then I find a location that best suits those criteria. But what about those unexpected places & things we happen upon by chance? I don’t usually allow myself the time to wander, and when I do, I decide where to turn and where to stop. But I wanted a chance to be challenged. I drove to a random area of town and stepped out with my camera, two lenses, and a pair of dice. The dice dictated my next move. An even number on the red meant ‘go right’ and an odd number meant ‘go left’. The number on the black dice indicated how many blocks I would walk – then stop. I then examined my surroundings and the light. To my surprise, in these unplanned and apparently dull locations, I found an abundance of photographic opportunities.
I encourage writers and other artists and teachers to visit Liz’s gallery and the other exhibits on the site to get a better idea of what I mean by learning how to see in new ways. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with buying a sketchbook and getting away from the computer to see what’s going on out there, to practice sketching visual details of people, places, things. You already know the rich possibilities out there to mine. Read Liz’s strategy for using dice to tell her which direction to take and for how many blocks. It could become your own personal board game. Use that, or a variation, or invent your own. You already know there’s some crazy-wonderful things to observe and write down. Things you could never make up at your computer. The trick is to never leave home without your sketchbook, and once you’re out in public, to remember to pull it out and use it.