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

Lesson 14: The Power of Observation 2

You can do the basic practice of observation any time as you move through your life; you don’t have to write down what you notice. But after a while you will probably find yourself noticing things that you want to write down. Now you can engage in observation practice not just to strengthen your powers of observation but also to collect material for pieces of writing. The collecting you did in earlier lessons was what I call internal collecting —you collected material from inside yourself. When you collect material through observation, you are engaging in external collecting—collecting material from outside yourself. (You can do external collecting in other ways as well; you can find more details in How To Be a Writer.)

As you did the basic practice of observation, you probably became more aware of your senses and of the kind of information each sense can give you: your eyes provide details of color and shape, for instance; your taste buds tell you whether something you put in your mouth is sweet or spicy, hot or cold, wet or dry. As you do the next practice (and repeat it, over time), try to keep learning about how each of your five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) works. You can also turn your attention inward, to the processes of your body (known as the proprioceptive senses) to notice movement, gesture, pulse rate, and other sensations. Although you will be collecting material with this practice, it’s also designed to make you more aware of your senses.

Go someplace where you can sit comfortably for a while, and bring a notebook and pen with you. Get settled; relax; and begin observing. As you do so, write down what you notice, using as many of your senses as you safely can.

As you collect, remember that you are not “writing”—you are simply practicing the skill of observation. So don’t worry about finding the perfect words to name what your senses are giving you. Instead of struggling to discover just the right words, see if you can observe more closely. Try, for instance, to get up closer to what you are observing so you can see, and collect, more details.

It’s also essential as you do this practice that you not slip into the easy habit of judging what is around you. If you find yourself, for instance, writing “woman in ugly dress,” notice that “ugly” is a judging word, not a word that names something taken in by our eyes. Look again at that dress: what characteristics does it have—details of color or shape or texture—that make you label it as “ugly”? Write down those details.

After you have done this practice for at least ten minutes—more, if you like—take some time to reflect on paper about how it went for you.

The more you engage your senses with the world around you, the more you will notice—and the more you will get in the habit of noticing. This practice of observation is one of the things creative writers do all the time; it’s one of the main ways they get material for their writing. You can do the same.

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