Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Gigi Amateau, the author of the young adult novel, A Certain Strain of Peculiar, a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year. She also wrote Chancey of the Maury River, a William Allen White Masters List title for grades 3-5. Her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. Come August, Come Freedom, a work of historical fiction for young adults, will be released from Candlewick Press in September 2012. Connect with Gigi at www.gigiamateau.com <http://www.gigiamateau.com> or on twitter: https://twitter.com/giamateau
Good morning, writers! First of all, thank you, Kate Messner, for organizing TeachersWrite! What a great opportunity to learn from and grow alongside all of you. Today, I’d like to share a practice that I use almost daily to improve my observation skills and to tune in to nature and the natural world. I find that these exercises help me draw more vivid settings, see beyond the obvious, and heighten my sensory experience of the environment.
As writers and teachers, you already know that two of your greatest skills are your strong sense of curiosity and your keen superpower of observation. Curiosity and observation team up to help us understand our thoughts and feelings about the real world; curiosity and observation are the foundation upon which we write new worlds – whether through fiction, poetry, essay, or song. Asking questions, noticing details, and identifying patterns begin inside a writer’s heart or mind then, with practice, make their way down the arm, into the fingertips, and onto the page or screen.
Can we really train ourselves to become more curious? Is observation really a superpower?
To me, the greatest gymnasium or auditorium or home field for a writer to train and practice is in the natural world. In his little book Walking, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “all good things are wild and free.” The outdoors is our wild and free writing laboratory – a place to conduct experiments with language and punctuation, a place to explore new territory in our thinking, our feelings, and our storytelling.
So, let’s begin by heading outdoors. That’s right! Set down your tea and walk outside. Just for a couple of minutes, I promise. If it’s nasty out or you’re just snug as bug, go ahead and practice right where you are.
To get started, shake up your body a bit. Take a quick scan up, down, and all around to notice where you’re holding tension or whether you feel stiff. Give those places that are begging for it, your permission to relax and a pathway to let go. Roll your shoulders back; now roll your shoulders forward. Inhale. Exhale. And, if that felt good, repeat!
Now, look around. Don’t alter the way you’re watching the world, but notice how you’re watching. Chances are that you’re focusing in on one section of the panorama before you. This is good! As your gaze adjusts to what you’re seeing, notice how you slice up the landscape in order to process what you see. Good job.
Let’s bring a different type of concentration to the act of observing. What happens when you try to take in the whole landscape without focusing on any single image? What changes within your field of vision?
I find that it’s difficult to hold keep panoramic lens going for very long; I naturally seem to return to observing one piece of the picture. That’s okay! Notice when you’ve lost the wide-angle and simply return to it. A little trick to help if you’re having trouble: keep your gaze straight ahead, but bring your peripheral vision into focus. Then, keeping the wide view, go exploring.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the front porch of an antebellum house in Norwood, Virginia, facing the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I practice these magic eyes, I see this place differently than when I’m focused on the butterfly bush that drapes the front walkway. Looking out toward the mountain ridge, and taking in the whole panorama, I see: a red-tailed hawk riding the current, a dappling of shadow and sunlight across the canopy, a savannah of cumulus clouds against a watery sky, and an old chestnut hound lost in puppy dreams beneath my feet. Each image urges me to turn my glance only upon it, but what else will I see if I keep my wide eyes? The ties of the awning slapping against the porch post, the loop-di-loop of a bumblebee, the zig-zag of a dragonfly, an empty white rocker resisting the breeze, and swallows dipping in and out of the treetops, down near the river.
Record your own experience with wide-angle watching. What did you observe in your wild and free writer’s studio?
Let’s switch it up. Which of those images from the landscape would you like to know more intimately?
Now, form an O with Pointer and Thumbkin, as if you were signaling, “okay!” Bring the O to one eye and close the other eye. Turn your attention to your subject, and shrink the O by curling your index finger down your thumb to toward your palm. Now, really examine your subject.
Here’s what I see: The dog is not entirely chestnut, only in the darkest places like the top of her back, the outsides of her thighs, and the points of her ankles. Her belly is almost white. She rests her head under the shade of the bench where I’m sitting. She sleeps with her front and back paws crossed, all-ladylike. Her breath rises and falls in an easy cadence. Not even the coal train passing by at the bottom of the hill causes her to stir. The old napper is tired for good reason, I think.
Pollen and leaves and dirt are strewn across her back, her belly, and her haunches. She’s been on an adventure today.
Record what you observed with your tiny finger-monocular.
Experimenting with different lenses is a fun practice all on its own. You may find a trail of breadcrumbs leading into new ideas or realize that you really enjoy one lens more than the other. You could also use these practices to examine and inform a specific scene of your work in progress by closing your eyes and shifting your mind’s eye back and forth between the panoramic and narrow lenses of that scene.