In My Little Black Book – Seeing Like a Writer

Kate Flora, here, continuing the discussion of your writerly tune-up. When last we were together, I was talking about the value of notebooks to the working writer to help capture observations about the world. Using notebooks helps us tune up our senses. Helps us capture and remember things we see and hear and read so we’ll have them some time down the road when we need them for a particular character or scene.

Novelist Francine Prose has a book that is sometimes used as a basis for entire courses for writers called Reading Like a Writer. It’s a good book, and one you all probably ought to read as part of your writerly tune-up. My extension of that–and one of the most important aspects of using notebooks–is Seeing like a writer. Opening your eyes, and opening your mind, knowing that you’re planning to record your observations, actually helps you to see more. It brings you into contact with a world that we spend a lot of our time screening out. It shows you things you might otherwise miss.

One aspect of this observation is discovering what others are seeing. Something I have learned from writing two very different series characters is to become aware of how they see the world. Since we do much of this unconsciously, it was a revelation to me to realize that Thea Kozak, a lawyer’s daughter, tends to organize her world into tasks, into to-do lists, and her observations tend to be either grounded in the literary or verbal, or in the interpersonal-emotional. Joe Burgess surprised me by being much more attuned to nature, something he inherited from his mother, and to the sounds and smells of the physical world–rotting vegetation, the tang of blood, a salty wind off the sea, fear scent. He is a far more visceral animal.

What my imaginary people have taught me is to bring this curiosity about how others see back into the real world. When I’m driving down a dark Portland street with an officer in a patrol car, I will say: “Tell me what you’re seeing that I am not,” and he will begin to read me the street. Who that is, sitting on the steps or limping down the sidewalk. The stories of the houses we pass. What behaviors they are watching for in other vehicles. How they will move and what they will watch for when doing a traffic stop.

I carry this curiosity into relationships with my friends and family, as well. I used to wear a pin (until it

romantic martini, La Jolla, January 2013

fell apart) that warned people to be careful what they told me. But even if those around us watch their words, there are actions, body language, clothing choices, and my current favorite: what they are drawn to and what they say about that. There are the places they take us, and the things we see when we get out of our ruts (like the shadow of an olive in the photo on the right.)

My friend Heidi is an artist. We are as unlike as two people can be, and she constantly gives me the gift of making me see the world differently, through her art, through the way she makes decisions, through the way she interprets the everyday.

Recently, I poked through a couple of San Francisco antique stores with my childhood best friend, Pam. We grew up in the same small town, were both odd-balls who wanted to write instead of worry about hair and make-up and boys, and have been friends for about fifty years. We used to sit in her kitchen with our feet in the over, smoking corncob pipes. But when we walk into a shop full of Western and Eastern flotsam, I head toward Art Nouveau and Victorian, carved furniture and silver serving pieces; she goes to teak, botanical prints, and mid-Century modern. I see, assess, dismiss; she studies, ponders, discusses. In the drug store, I grabbed black tights and was ready to go; she explored the possibilities of the shelves with the fascination of someone recently released from prison. Her pace and mine are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

We can carry this observing and wondering back into other writers’ fiction. What are the small building blocks other writers use to give us a picture of their characters? To help us understand motivation? To explain an emotional reaction or a cruel behavior farther down the road? And all of this, too, can you in your notebooks. You can dissect your understanding, and record it.

Someone gave me the notebook I carry in my purse. It is flowered, and glittery, and not what I might have chosen. But it is definitely hard to ignore. Which is good. Whether you use scraps of paper, or a notebook, or the notes app on your phone–start writing things down. See if it makes a difference in the way you–or your character–sees the world.

 

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2 Responses to In My Little Black Book – Seeing Like a Writer

  1. John Clark says:

    Great post. One of my defining moments goes back to the day we stood, looking at the ugly gap that was Dad’s wall and someone (maybe both of us) said, when the shock lifts, one of us will write a story about this. My mantra is that someone each week will give me that great opening line.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful reminder, Kate, not just to see … but to see through your characters’ eyes …and know that each character sees differently. Great post!

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