The Simple Skill Every Creative Needs

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I began to write this from a spare room in Nashville. Laying on an air mattress with a headache before 10 am (is there a prize for that?), I closed my eyes to settle in. I heard the insects outside, already energetically greeting the day. I felt the weird soft tension of air holding my body off the floor. I enjoyed the soft fleece blanket keeping me warm in the artificial cold of my brother’s girlfriend’s apartment.

I began to notice the details.

Why observing is critical

I’m not sure what it is, but when I take moments like these, to get out of my smartphone and into my current reality, inspiration often strikes. It stems from experiential learning. Sitting still in a restaurant, I get to listen to how people actually speak. It strengthens my ear, allowing me to know and write dialogue.

Most writers have heard at one point or another the advice “write what you know”. And it’s true. You write better characters. You write better plot. You write more believable pieces that make it easier for the reader to follow. What you know is rooted in what you’ve seen, heard, and observed in your own life.

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But observing doesn’t just benefit writers. My photography begins in noticing. I look around me, perhaps creating a “view finder” with my hand to test out potential images. Scientists spend years learning the fundamentals of their field in order to make better hypotheses and do stronger research. It takes imagination based on evidence (found through observation) for brilliant theories like relativity to come about.

For many other creative fields, observation is the research. Painters don’t just learn how to use oil paint, they spend years trying to understand what they see. Is the leaf green? Is the light on it yellow or blue? What is the real angle of the shadows? It’s easy to assume and get it wrong. It’s a lot harder to really look and incorporate that into the piece.

Simple yet difficult to do

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Sometimes we’re just too tired to open our eyes

Observation as a habit becomes rarer and rarer. How many of us have a free moment and dive into our phones? I’ll be honest: I’m guilty of this often as well. We want to be entertained, we want to be connected. It’s far less seductive than a dramatic TV show or Twitter fight.

Observation, ultimately, requires patience. It requires us to slow down and take time to observe. No questions, no big moments, just us alone with our senses open to the world around us. It forces us to be both with ourselves and to take stock. You may even find yourself a better artist because of it.

Quietly, with only the evidence of the real world, it can even undermine our assumptions about ourselves. For instance, observing has also become a form of my self-care. When I was returning from Nashville, I lingered in the airport baggage claim area. I realized that all of the people, stimulation, and general stress were affecting me negatively. I couldn’t handle the crowd, in fact; crowded areas leave me overwhelmed and unhappy.

This was a bit of an awakening for me. I had dreamed of being a city girl as a kid, of being this sophisticated woman. Observing myself has shown me that dream is simply unrealistic (I also love sweatpants; so really, I was never going to be that chic).

6 ways to practice observing

Want to start your own practice of observing? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Go to a cafe. Sit down and just listen to people. How are they talking? What are they talking about? What are they wearing? Are they in groups or alone? Take notes, or perhaps sketch what you see.
  1. Sit outside in the park. Take a minute to look at the plants. Are there insects on them? How many leaves do they have? Are they strong or dying? What would they say if they could talk?
  1. Driving and reach a stop light? Look at the person in the car next to you. What do they look like? What are they doing?
  1. Close your eyes and listen to a song without interruption. What do you hear differently than usual? What instruments are playing? What are the words about?
  1. Walk barefoot on a surface. What does it feel like? How would you describe it to someone who has never walked on it before?
  1. Eat your favorite food. What does it taste like? Why do you like it? What makes it so amazing to you?

Is observing critical for your creativity? Let me know in a comment below! 

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