Monday, August 24, 2020

Tip for Writers (and Other Humans): You See More If You Look

This past weekend I attended (via ZOOM) a workshop hosted by the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and presented by local author Ellen Orleans: "Bringing the Outdoors into Children's Books: Interactive Nature Activities for Writers and Illustrators."

The ZOOM session was wonderful, but the best part of the workshop was the homework Ellen assigned us to do in advance. Our task was to take a short walk and complete one of three sets of activities: 1. Make It Fresh with New Discoveries; 2. Make It Alive with Sensory Details; and 3. Make It Specific with Nature Names.

I love homework, anyway, and writing homework is my favorite kind of homework. Ellen's assignment might have been my favorite homework EVER.

Leaving the dog at home for a (pleasant!) change, I strolled around the cluster of townhouses where I live, and where I walk with Tanky three times every single day. But this time I was on a mission, to "note what surprises, astonishes, or is a new discovery for you."

In the past, I had truly never noticed ANYTHING. My walking time is my thinking time, my planning time, my time for making long to-do lists in my head. 

So now, charged with the challenge of noticing, I had a new discovery literally every few steps.

Look! A tiny plant valiantly growing from a crack in a boulder!

Look! Pewter-colored lichen! Rust-colored lichen! Tiny golden leaves as harbingers of autumn!

Then I remembered that ages ago I had downloaded a free nature-identifying app on my phone that I had never bothered to use, called Seek. So I started Seeking. I'd snap a picture of a flower, and now I'd know its name: Dotted Gayflower!

I'd find a berry and wonder if I should try tasting it as part of my new sensory immersion in nature, or if that might occasion a painful death from poisoning. But Seek would assure me this was a Chokecherry. 

So into my mouth I popped one.

At the ZOOM workshop later in the day, one fellow author commented on the sheer power just of the question Ellen had posed for us. Just by being asked, "What astonished you?" Katherine set off on her walk with this expectation: "I am ready to be astonished."

I was ready to be astonished, too, and precisely for this reason I WAS astonished: partly (in a shamefaced way) by all I had missed on my daily walks for the past ten years, but also by how thrilling it was to be able to name even a tiny weed growing in oblivion at the edge of a sidewalk - and in seeking for its name, truly SEEING it for the first time. 

Will I make use of the nature workshop in my writing? I doubt I'll ever have one of my characters exclaim  over a "dotted gayflower" in any scene in one of my books. But I can see how my new knowledge of the difference between a spruce and a pine (I truly knew nothing at all about the natural world before!!) might add specificity to some future description. 

Most of all I just learned - what I guess I already knew, but constantly need to make myself remember - that I am vastly more likely to SEE if I take the trouble to LOOK. LOOKING at the world with an attentive, expectant gaze vastly increases my chance of making small, but wonderful, discoveries. 

Thank you, Ellen Orleans, and thank you, SCBWI organizers, and thank you, beautiful, glorious, astonishing world.

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