Paying attention to the world can enhance your writing
‘A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.’
These words, made famous by Susan Sontag, ring true for any sort of written work: from the tiniest microfiction to the most epic novel. Observational skills are some of the most valuable tools we have as authors, allowing us to create stories that help to make sense of our lives and truly connect with readers.
Paying attention to the world, however, doesn’t just have to be about creating literary masterpieces; it can be equally useful for when things aren’t going so well.
Trying out new methods of observing can be a fun and low-pressure way to conjure new ideas and add depth, authority and authenticity to your stories along the way. It needn’t involve Proustian levels of detail and can work on whatever scale you like, whether it’s an overarching concept for a novel, or a small detail that ignites a scene or descriptive passage.
Ultimately, it’s about seeing the possibilities in your surroundings.
Take a walk
A walk is a simple suggestion, but one that offers endless possibilities.
You could go for a stroll and wait to see what jumps out at you, or you could set out with the intention of focusing upon something specific, such as smell, colour or sound.
You could take pictures of the things that catch your attention or just take it all in and then write down anything noteworthy once you’ve returned home.
This method has the added benefit of giving you a physical break from the screen or page and means you’re almost guaranteed to return with a new prompt to work with – plus a welcome boost of endorphins.
Human beings are naturally sociable creatures, and dare I say it – a little bit nosey at times.
People we encounter as we go about our business inevitably capture our imaginations and linger in our subconscious long after we’ve passed them by: the bickering couple, the little girl crying as her balloon floats away, the old man carefully unwrapping a sandwich.
Just taking time to observe others, maybe while sitting on a park bench or in a café, is a wonderful way of generating ideas and creating strong characters.
Jan Carson provides a masterful example of how this can be done in her Postcard Stories series, featuring micro stories written on the back of postcards that were inspired by observations made in her local vicinity.
Pick a room, any room
Of course, you might prefer to ‘pay attention’ from the comfort of your own home. We’ve spent so much more time cooped up over the past few months that you could be forgiven for not immediately seeing your living quarters as a major source of inspiration; however, given the chance, they can be surprisingly fruitful.
Pick a room and spend ten minutes quietly observing it from top to bottom. Once your time is up, note down the details that stood out to you – the cobweb in the corner of the bathroom or a bowl of fruit may soon start to take on a new narrative significance.
Read the news
You may have had enough of the news at present but, if you can bear it, try scanning for eye-catching headlines – they could sow the seeds of a story.
This method may work for you if you tend towards the dystopian. Margaret Atwood, for example, claimed the events in The Handmaid’s Tale were inspired by things that had happened, or were happening, somewhere in the world at the time of writing.
Once you start ‘paying attention’, stories should start to leap out at you from the most unexpected places. Your surroundings offer infinite possibilities for your writing.