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We Are Always Drowning in Human Experience: The Power of Observation

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March 6, 2013 by Nichole Eck

Good writers pay attention to the world around them. Whether you’re writing recipes, newspaper columns, blog posts, fictional stories, or nonfictional essays, observing everyday life will give you valuable insight and ideas.

This is true, mainly, for two reasons.

1. Creativity works best when fueled.

Writers are not (usually) people who sit in dark, solitary attics and summon brilliant characters and plot arcs from the dark recesses of their creative pit. I’ve tried. And I usually get stuck with characters I’ve already written or a blank computer screen.

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The creative mind works best when it is constantly fueled. By reading, yes, but also by living and witnessing other people live.

And taking notes. I always carry a small notebook with me when I’m out of the house because inspiration always hits me when I least expect it.

Maybe I see a person on the bus who’s nervous tick of continously zipping and unzipping a small pocket of her purse would be perfect for a character I’m writing.

Or maybe I pass a person on the street who is carrying a cello, a McDonald’s bag, and a suitcase, and I just know there’s a story there. So my mind will start writing possible backstories and character developments that I can use later.

Or sometimes a brilliantly witty phrase comes to me, and I must immediately write down that that man’s legs in hiking boots looked like “potted palm trees,” which may not be that brilliant, but at least gets me to look at the world differently.

But none of this would happen if I weren’t paying attention to my surroundings, looking for quirky, human tells. And this search is vital and fruitful because…

2. We are always drowning in human experience.Underwater

That is why people read, to understand both the suffocation and the peace that humanity causes. And that is what really good writing touches on or considers in some way.

The human condition envelops us always, and it is often easiest to see it in others or in our interactions with others.

Even if you’re writing an epic fantasy with warlocks and warriors and blacksmiths, your characters, if they are true characters, will have basically the same emotions, wants, needs, and conflicts as people do now. You might find the perfect quirk for your eccentric mage by watching the man across from you on the bus. You might find a backstory for your hero by noticing the somber couple in front of you in line at the grocery store. Heck, even your non-human characters will most likely be drowning in the same sentient experience as humans.

But if you’re not looking around constantly, you’ll miss out on novels’ worth of inspiration.

Any thoughts on observation? Comment below!

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7 thoughts on “We Are Always Drowning in Human Experience: The Power of Observation

  1. Westin says:

    Yes! Completely true. I tried the solitary confinement version of writing too. It only works that way when you’re crazy.

    I have rambled this ramble somewhere, but I don’t remember if it was your blog.. but – much of my creative capacity (… is it presumptive to say I possess that?) comes from being a space cadet and those constant leaps of thought that lose the environment around you. Staring at the wall and blobs of paint stop being blobs but start being shapes – warlocks, wizards, of course, but also fancy talking daisies with four-eyed glasses and deep rumbling laughter. It’s in the white paintblobs on the wall! Or the shapes in the clouds I guess. Free association and improvisation on the bland themes presented by reality is a wonderful to respond to reality creatively. I think. But ideally one needs interaction with the bland themes of reality in reality to write for people who don’t only stare at walls all day long.

    That is…Yes. I agree.

    PS – Kurt Vonnegut. Economy. Mmmmmm.

    • nicholeck says:

      I have not heard this ramble before, Westin, but I like it–I totally look for shapes in paint blobs, too! They remind me of off-brand Rorschach tests that probably say more about my mental or emotional stability than I even realize.

      And saying you have creative capacity? Presumptive? Perhaps by definition. But presumptuous? Certainly not!

      Besides, I think everyone has some level of creative capacity by nature of being human.

      And for the record, I will now probably always imagine the little plant at my desk to have a “deep rumbling laughter” that it uses to scare the custodians at night. Thanks for the laugh. =)

  2. Gwen says:

    Great post! You’re right – Ideas are everywhere. We just have to pay attention.

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