We had so much snow yesterday but most of it melted as it hit the ground. It did lie on the grass through. When I went out with the dogs, on a not very adventurous walk around the park, the snow was blowing sideways, big thick snow that made visibility difficult. I kept my face to the ground, hurrying my wee legs as quick as I could with the vision of a steaming mug of tea waiting for me at home, and of course my jammies.
It’s easy to take the surrounding beauty for granted when the weather isn’t to your liking, and to be honest, the above picture was taken on another day when the wind was just a wee whistle and, the snow just a wee crust on the periphery of my walk. It wasn’t until I was on my last lap of the park when a flake of snow, a giant flake of snow, landed on my lip. It was only a second before it melted, but the wee snow kiss ripped me out of my daydream and I found myself in the middle of a snow globe. There wasn’t another in sight, just me and my snow patterned dog, who looked at me wondering why I had stopped. It was a moment of absolute beauty, from the cold fizz of the melting snow on my lip, to my tongue reaching for a taste. I was utterly alive. For the remainder of my walk I kept my head up, letting the snow land on my face, my hat, but it only took.a single kiss to bring me into the present moment.
Some images evoke the senses without any effort, for me it is logs. Look at all that rich colour, the moss, the darkness of the wet wood compared to the dry wood, see the reds, browns and blacks in the bark and the yellows, oranges and shades of brown in the trunk. What do these colours resemble?
Now imagine what the wood smells like, the just cut smell, the dry wood before it is thrown on the fire, or the wet wood that has been frosted over. Can you taste the smell of the wood on your tongue? What are each of those smells like?
Imagine the noise of the tree being sawn down, or the axe splitting the logs into small pieces. Imagine the sound of the wood being bundled together and then thrown on the fire. What does it sound like?
Finally, what does the wood feel like? Imagine it in its natural form, a tall tree, rooted deep into the earth. Think of the birds and the animals scurrying through its branches, the leaves and buds, fruit and nuts, that it produces each year. Imagine all the insects living in its bark, on the leaves, amongst the roots. Now imagine your fingers on that bark, the roughness, the damp and the moss, the knots and the sap. Now think of the log, the weight of it in your hand, the lines and the grooves of the split trunk, the softness and the hardness, the jaggy and the smooth. What does the log feel like?
As a writer, we rely on the senses to help us to describe an object, a place or a person or an emotion. Transfering your own experience of the senses into language isn’t always as easy as you would think, after all, you might normally use the most beautiful, poetic sentences that drip of your tongue like nectar, but if the reader cannot see it in their own minds eye, the detail will be lost on them, and it might be the most important detail in your work.
Let me give you an example:
I beleive a good way for writers to develope their craft is by allowing themselves the gift of presence and curiosity when researching, or, when looking for inspiration. Remember when you were a child and experienced something or somewhere new? If we allow ourselves to look at the world through the eyes of a child again, with curiosity and without judgement, and then apply all of those wonderful senses available to us, we might widen our knowledge. Then, if we try to describe that experience, with all the fancy, exciting adult words and techniques that we have learned, but with absolute clarity and precision, perhaps we will deliver a win.
In the novel that I’m currently writing, my character is watching Swift’s flying through the air. I described them as being like fighter jets ducking and diving and tearing the twilight into scraps. Now, I personally love that sentence, it fills my heart up with joy because that is what I imagined when I experienced something similar myself. However, the latter part of the sentence doesn’t make sense. The similie of the swifts being like fighter jets is something that can be imagined, but tearing the twilight into scraps doesn’t work, if you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, drop it.
So why not give it a go? You might even do this as part of a mindful walking excersise, or, to really focus on something, someone or somewhere, do it with intention. Take three long deep breaths and allow yourself to arrive into the present moment. Take time to feel your surroundings, the air on your skin, the temperature of the air, is it wet or dry? Then feel you body making contact with the earth, or your hands on the wheels. Check to see if you are holding any tension in your body, and relax. Now it is time to go forth into your present moment, with curiosity and without judgement.
One of the best things about living in the Scottish Highlands in the wee detached village of Killin, is the night sky. It’s pretty dark at night, with little light pollution and the brightest moon I’ve ever seen. When there is a scattering of clouds, however, the sky puts on the most spectacular show of patterns and shapes, it’s like art. When the days are clear and the rain is at bay, we have a new exhibition to indulge in every night, and often with twinkling stars dotted in between. That’s not to say it’s not freezing, wrapping up is essential for sky gazing. The picture that accompanies this post was taken in December 2020. It was taken on my phone and zoomed in. I couldn’t help but notice a genie smoking his pipe and pondering what’s to become of this bloody pandemic.
What do you see?
The night sky is a great place to start for writing inspiration. Perhaps on a clear night, get yourself wrapped up and venture out into the dark.
Listen Look Smell Feel
By tuning into the senses, you might be surprised at what the night has to offer. For me, on a night like the one in December, I would hear the hoo-hoo of the owl, the swishing of the trees on the old railway, the creaking of the car port roof, possibly a car in the distance bit mostly not.
The sky can be anything from a yellow oil slick, to a blue fox stretching lazily between the seven sisters and the plough.
There’s usually a smell of a burning wood in the air, the smell of wet grass, sweet frost or mulch. Sometimes even the smell of laundry from someone’s tumble dryer.
I will feel the sharpness of the air as it reaches my lungs, the sting of cold on my cheeks, my feet on the ground, my heart beating, the clothes on my skin.
This is present moment awareness, a moment of mindful contemplation. All of it relevant as I stand completely alive, sharing the sky with those brave enough to be out too.
Being a writer means also being an observer, how else are we able to describe the world around us but through our senses. I believe we can become better writers by learning the art of deep observation and paying closer attention to the here and now.
So, what is a deep observer? It is someone who actively experiences the world with a strong curiosity, who opens up all the senses available to them in order to examine what’s happening. That might seem obvious, however, for much of the day we actually miss what’s happening in the world around us because we are lost in our own thoughts.
Learning to pause, to be still, and to open up the possibility of becoming an intentional deep observer takes time and practice – it requires the ability to be present. Presence is simply being aware of where you are, in body and in mind, and actively choosing to be fully aware of what is happening in that moment. In mindfulness practice, we would describe this as arriving in the moment.
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
So, how do we arrive in the moment? In a mindfulness meditation practice, we would arrive in the moment by ringing a bell or a gong. By doing this at the beginning and end of a practice, we are setting an intention to be present during that time period. Being present though, isn’t necessarily about meditation, although we can build a stronger ability for presence when we practice meditation, but we can be present at any time, we just have to do be present intentionally.
Setting an intention to be present is more difficult than you think. Try, for example, setting an intention to be present while washing the dishes.Try to become fully aware of where you are and what you are doing. Perhaps take a moment before you begin to say out loud, ‘right now I am washing the dishes.’ How long was it before your mind began to wander? Perhaps you started thinking of what you would like to be doing instead. Perhaps you were thinking of something that happened last week, or an hour ago. Regardless, it is difficult to stay focused for very long without the mind going of on its own journey and taking us along for the ride. This is particularly prevelant when we are partaking in something mundane or repetitive, and are happy to loose ourselves in thoughts and dreams. But the mundane can be such an important part of our writing and by actively seeking out those mundane experiences ourselves, we can so enrich the quality of our work.
When we practice intentional deep observation, the present moment experience will become richer, and certainly more interesting. Perhaps, before we begin, take a few seconds to arrive in the moment (I’m not suggesting sounding a gong every time you do the washing up). Maybe stand by the sink. Feel your feet on the floor or the area where your body makes contact with the chair or stool, become aware of the temperature in the room, the sounds, then perhaps take three deep breaths. When you begin washing up, try noticing the tactile experience of washing the dishes, the temperature of the water on your hands, the feeling of the detergent, the way the water changes when it starts to become greasy or dirty. All of those experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, are knowledge. Use your other available senses too, such as your sight, what does that blob of tomato sauce look like when it is dissolving in water, look at how the oat milk in the bottom of that glass mug resembles a monkey’s face (see my post image). Try to experience the smell too, the smell of the detergent, other smells in the room, the smell of the sink once the water has washed down the plug hole. All of these observations are knowledge, material.
Setting an intention to be present, to be a deep observer, does not mean that the mind will not wander, of course it will, that’s what minds do. However, noticing the mind wandering is, or can be, part of the observation. Where did the mind wander to? How long did it last, what were you hands doing during this time? By practising these observational skills we can expand our knowledge and awareness which can only enrich our writing.
As we get more practiced, we can begin to use these skills when on the move, while walking in nature, on sitting on train, in a busy supermarket, or climbing a mountain. We can really begin to explore how to intentionally and deeply observe. We can even observe people, body language, quirks, moods, etc. The possibilities are endless.
So, while I hope that this post was helpful, I would like to finish by saying that in no way am i suggesting it is helpful to be intentionally and deeply observant all of the time, in fact I value the ability to disappear into my own head, I like it there too much, after all, that where the magic comes from and the ideas begin.