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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 13: The Power of Observation

The imagination is the mental faculty that enables us to make pictures of things that aren’t present to our senses. But in order to make those pictures, we need to have already filled our imaginations with raw material. How do we do that? By making use of another essential writer’s faculty: our power of observation. The imagination is completely dependent upon observation; so, if we want to be able to use our imagination in our writing, we need first to develop our ability to observe.

Like most of the powers we need in order to write well, our faculty of observation is completely ignored in our educational system, which focuses exclusively on training the intellect. But (again, like all the other powers) the ability to observe comes naturally to humans; without it, we could never have survived as a species. Early humans who could not pay attention to their surroundings would certainly perish. Today most people (at least in North America) live in a kind of technological bubble, almost completely divorced from what is around them.

If you, like most people, have neglected your powers of observation for years, they are undoubtedly weak. You can strengthen them through regular practice. In the process you will also collect a great deal of material for use in your writing.

When we observe, we use our senses—not our thoughts or feelings—to notice what is around us. You can do the basic practice of observation any time, any place. Here’s how:

Take some deep breaths. Try to relax. Now turn your attention away from your thoughts and feelings, outward to the world around you. What do you notice in this world? What do your eyes take in? Your ears? Your fingers? Your nose?

After you have done this practice for as long as you like, take a few moments to reflect—on paper, if you wish—about what happened as you did this practice.

It’s possible that you found this practice hard to do. Most of us live “in our heads” most of the time: thinking, thinking, thinking. If you want to become a good observer, you need to let go of those thoughts. How important are most of them, anyway?

Even if you found this practice difficult, though, I encourage you to keep doing it. As with any other practice, the more you do it, the more comfortable you will become. You may even find yourself choosing to move through the world without putting up technological barriers (headphones, cellphones, newspapers) between you and what’s around you. You may discover that the world is full of interesting things you want to pay attention to. Now you’re ready for the next practice in observation.

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