Kate Flora here, writing from the other coast. I’ve written before about the distraction of reading books in my genre when I’m deeply into a story of my own. Today’s post is a variation on that–the distraction of reading books about writing as both a writer and a writing teacher.
In the flat we rented in San Francisco, there was a small book with a modest brown cover called Writers Workshop in a Book. It is a collection of essays from writers who have taught over the years at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a writers’ workshop that has been in existence for decades. When I’ve taken breaks from the intensity of Detective Sergeant Joe Burgess’s latest case, I’ve browsed through the book. It has made me want to teach a class just called: Your Notebook–Using the Note-Taking Process to Tune Up Your Observing Self.
I have been teaching writing classes for more than fifteen years. Over the years, I’ve taught at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education, for Maine Writers and Publishers, in the Brown University continuing education program, at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference, and currently, for Grub Street in Boston. One of the things I always tell my students is this: take notes. You think you will remember this down the road, but you may not.
I tell them to carry a small notebook or index cards and jot down things that they hear, things that they observe, and things they discover in their reading that strike them because of the quality of the writing, the way the writer has surprised them, or because something they have read inspires an idea for their own writing. Part of each weekly class is a session when students share items from their notebooks. I do this because the world is our laboratory, and writers must be curious. I do this because it tunes up their powers of observation. It makes them notice what they see, what they are curious about, what they are drawn to. Hearing what other students observe opens their eyes to new possibilities as well as to a new language of description.
My meanderings through Writers Workshop in a Book have tuned up my own sense of the importance of using our senses to see the world, and then rendering that world for our readers. In his essay, A Writer’s Sense of Place, James D. Houston talks about location and the power of landscape. Houston writes:
The idea of a sense of place is nothing new, of course. It has been a constant in human life from day one. You can’t avoid it. You have to park somewhere, have a roof over your head, and wherever this happens has to be a place of one kind or another. But we’re not always aware of it as such. At some point, places move into the conscious life. When that occurs, we begin to have a sense of it, an awareness of it and our relationship to it.
Many of us live and write in Maine because the sense of place is important to us. Because being surrounded by a place that forces us to deal with it makes it hard not to notice. Maine weather is a significant factor in our planning. It affects what we wear, what we carry in our cars, how attentive we are to the tread on our tires, what the challenges of a journey from point A to B may be, and whether we postpone our trip for another day. Whether that chill in the air makes us dream of fish chowder or a cup of our favorite tea. We write about how a hot summer brings such an excess of tomatoes we want to stop cooking and canning and have a tomato war. We write about how to survive a fall through the ice because falling through the ice really happens. We smell the air because we’re more likely to be moving through it, not going from enclosed garage to parking garage to offices with canned air.
But sometimes, as James Houston reminds us in his essay, our own environments become commonplace. We stop seeing them. Our thoughts are turned inward. We’re hearing the voices of our characters and not the voices of those around us, walking darkened Portland streets instead of the streets in our neighborhoods. We’re in a patrol car with a flashing light bar and not in the real world.
Going away to someplace different can have the effect of retuning our senses. Noticing the sounds of a city, instead of the country can remind us of what it sounds like at home. Different noises at night can remind us of what the sounds of our own houses are like. What bangs and dings and hums. What vehicles go past and what their tires sound like. How far away sirens are not like emergency vehicles roaring through the canyons of city streets. What it is like to watch the multiple reflections of a fire engine off nearby windows, as opposed to our neighbor’s strange red bathroom light seen through a filter of trees.
And when our senses are reattuned, and we are seeing this new world, and inspired to re-see our old one, then Dr. Flora says: Get out that notebook (or your phone, or your iPad.) Write it down so you’ll remember it. File away those flashes of light, the squabbling of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, the distant barking of sea lions. The sounds of fog horns on the bay. Write them down in your notebook so you’ll have them three years from now when you’re writing a scene. And write them down so that they become imbedded in your consciousness, and become a reminder to pay better attention to the world around you.