But We’re Really Spying on You

Kate Flora: Some years ago, I was speaking to a high school class about writing, and I IMG_1581was talking to them about how, as writers, we need to train ourselves to be observant. “You think you are here to watch me,” I said, “but actually, I’m here to watch you.” Then I asked them to tell me what a high school classroom sounds like. There was a group hesitation, and then one student ventured: Quiet?

“Not really,” I said, and I pointed out some of the things I’d observed while I was speaking to them. It was winter, and there was the crisp nylon rustle of vests and jackets. The sounds of zippers on clothes and on backpacks. The slam of books, the rattle of pens and pencils on desks. There was the impatient sound of fingernails on desks. The clatter of boot heels and the slap of athletic shoes as they arrived. The thud of book bags on the floor. People whispered. In the background, there was the mechanical sounds of a heating system. Outside, the noise of people walking past.

IMG_7339As I’ve often told my writing students, despite the advice our mothers gave us about minding our own business, a writer’s job is to be nosy. Observant. To see the world around us so that we can then render it on the page for you. What the world looks like at different times of day and different seasons of the year. Plates of food. Shapes and shadows. Amusing signs. Odd little things that other people miss. How people move and talk and the facial expressions that come and go. The people whose faces are set in deep lines of disapproval or disappointment. Those who move with a bounce, whose faces invite a smile. Who by their presence make the day a better one.IMG_9833

Forgive me if I’ve written about this before, but one of my favorite writing exercises, and one I occasionally practice on myself when I’m not teaching, is the sensory isolation exercise. Choose one place, I tell them, and write three different paragraphs using three different senses. The results are fascinating.

This morning, for example, I am writing at the dining room table. If I close my eyes, this is what I smell. Immediately in front of me I smell the leftover breakfast bacon and the oily crispness of French toast. Beyond it, providing sweet and fruity undertones, are the morning’s fruit mixture–the sharpness of raspberries and the sweet notes of nectarines. Farther away, the salty tang of the incoming fog bank. The remnants of this morning’s coffee.

If I close my eyes and listen, there is the clung and hum of the refrigerator, the crispness IMG_6044of a breeze through the leaves, and the distant throb of a lobster boat going past. There’s the clanging rigging and the flapping canvas of a sailboat heading out of the cove. The mmmm sound of the microwave heating up leftovers. The slap and suck of the waves on the rocks. And several birds I don’t recognize, plus a pair of gulls squabbling on a neighbor’s chimney.




Crossing the room to my seat, the old fir floor feels slightly sticky in the morning’s leftover damp. I feel the thickness of the soft wool carpet under the table. The not-quite-fullsizeoutput_16a6enough cushion on the chairs and the pressure of the woven wicker seat against my thighs. The breeze is gentle and soft as it tickles the back of my neck, sending a wayward hair flying to brush against my cheek. The “l” key sticks slightly. My back is stiff and misbehaving and I feel its ease when I shift my shoulders and sit up straighter.

We go through the world, collecting visuals, scents, sensations, and sounds so that we can   enhance our work and make it feel more vivid and engaging. And of course, we spy on you. Why did you choose to wear a black bra under a white tee-shirt? Where did a man that large get the chutzpah to wear a bright red Spiderman shirt? Does that woman know how lovely she looks in turquoise? Oh my gosh. The design on that pink shirt is a gazillion navy blue lobsters! That man’s whole body broadcasts dejection. If only that girl would only stand up straight and own her height.

Yes. We spy. But the characters in our books are not you. They are a composite of the lobster blouse, the slumped shoulders, the wayward hair, the very upright walk. We writers are pieces of human blotting paper, walking around, absorbing the information we need to create our imaginary worlds.



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16 Responses to But We’re Really Spying on You

  1. Marian McMahon Stanley says:

    Beautiful posting, Kate. I think you are also showing your students how to be fully alive in their senses, fully present.

  2. hpl04943 says:

    Excellently put. One of my relaxation tools is sound separation where I combine conscious breathing with what I call sound separation-trying (and at times succeeding) to isolate all the sounds I can hear at that moment.

    • I forget how important awareness is, and have to slow down and make myself pay attention again. Of course, while I was writing this, the almost new refrigerator gave an ominous shudder which definitely disturbed the meditative quality of the exercise.


  3. kaitlynkathy says:

    Great post, Kate. I’m lamentably unobservant, which is why my rough drafts always contain the note: add sensory details.

  4. Art Taylor says:

    I LOVE this post—such a lesson in how writers observe (or should!) and how they translate it/transform it on the page. Great.

  5. Amber Foxx says:

    Not only a great writing exercise, but an inner trip to Maine. I was there with very detail of your moment.

  6. Sandra Neily says:

    This post’s a keeper! I like the idea of carefully sorting out sensory awareness into different categories so what receive just might POP
    for us. Thanks, Kate!

  7. Charlene Fox Clemons says:

    Fascinating post. I have heard you talk about this before, but this post brought it to life in a new way. Thank you for opening my eyes (and other senses) to what is going on all around!

    • Now you go try it, Charlene. Maine in the summer is perfect for this. Right now I’m wishing I had a birder beside me to identify all the bird calls. Last week, the hawks were shrieking and it was something to hear.


      • Charlene Fox Clemons says:

        I am working on it, Kate. And it is making me more observant and tuned into the world around me.

  8. Barbara Ross says:

    So am I a writer because I am nosy, or am I nosy because I’m a writer? I suspect the former…

    • I don’t know about this chicken and egg problem. I do give my students a “license to be nosy” so that they’re authorized to listen to people’s conversations and be curious about the world.


  9. Absolutely! And I was blown away while watching the Jeopardy High School tournament a couple of months ago, when Alex Trebek asked one young student how he prepares for something like Jeopardy, and his response was “Just pay attention.”

  10. mowalsh says:

    It’s so easy for me to overdo the visual details and slight the other senses unless one of them–smell at a garbage dump, sound at a rock concert–is the obvious go-to. A variation on your terrific exercise might be to describe something without the most obvious sensory information. Thanks, Kate!

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