Recently I went hiking at Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. Mashomack encompasses one-third of the island including woodlands, marshes, ponds, coastline, and grasslands. As pristine as it is, I began my hike with a lot on my mind. My thoughts were spiraling around and around. At first the hike was just another thing on my to-do list.
A Walk in the Woods
A chipmunk about the size of a dollar bill scurried across the path and refocused my attention. I realized I couldn’t remember the past ten minutes of my hike. What a waste, I thought. There I was with my boots on the dirt, a cloudless sky overhead, and birdsong from every corner. And then I thought about all of you.
I always encourage writers (and people in general!) to be more observant. Give yourself over to your surroundings, whether you’re in line at the grocery store or hiking a nature preserve. Part of it is about putting down our phones and removing distraction, true, but it’s also about actively paying attention.
In my last post, we talked about creating vivid description. I think—no, I know—that vivid description starts here. Actively paying attention leads to unique descriptions in your writing because you’re engaged on a deeper level. The bonus? You’re teaching yourself to move through the world as a writer. Let’s try it right now.
Paying Attention, Especially During NaNoWriMo
Come along with me on my hike at the Mashomack Preserve. Listen to the sounds of autumn in the Northeast!
- Press play on the recording below. You’ll probably need your earbuds for this.
- What do you hear? At times, it may sound like a cacophony. Other times, you may think there is simply silence. Really Tease apart the sounds.
- Write down every sound you hear. Close your eyes if that helps or look at the photo above. It’s not necessary to write in complete sentences, unless that feels right.
- Don’t worry about trying to identify a particular bird or animal. Rather, pick up on the variety of sounds. Are there two different birds? One close and one farther away? (More than just birds? Answer: yes!) Two birds of the same species talking to each other? What is the quality of the sound? Chittering? Squawking? Staccato bumps? When you hear me walking, does it sound like gravel? Fallen leaves?
This is the kind of tuning in that helps sharpen your observational skills. What does this have to do with your specific story? Maybe nothing. But maybe everything because it can help you incorporate these kinds of defining details into your writing.
Of course this mini-exercise has a drawback, namely that you’re listening second-hand. But what if you tried this in your daily life? When you’re doing laundry, walking your dog, driving the kids to practice. During NaNoWriMo? Now, I know NaNoWriMo is all about words on the page. Just get. the. words. down. But the side benefit of NaNo is what I’ve been describing. It’s focusing your attention on being a writer 24/7. And I’ll bet that if you make these types of observations part of your life, you’ll bring your writer self to the surface. Carry a notebook (I’m sooo old school) and keep track of what captures your attention. Do it in whatever way works for you: bullet points, full sentences, stream of consciousness.
When you sit down to your WIP, these kinds of observations will surface because you’ll move into your story rather than being on the sidelines of your story. You may not be able to use your notes verbatim from your trip to the grocery store in your novel about Colonial America, but I bet your characters will start noticing interesting things.
Let me know if you try it and if it helps you interact with your writing in a new and different way.
And if you liked this exercise, we’ll be doing a lot more of this in my new course Writing About Place: Five Days to Immersive Setting. Yep, just five days! We’ll be starting early December, so when you’re done NaNo-ing and you need to refine all of those words, this course will be just the thing. Registration details coming soon! (Sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss a thing.)
- Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What is your biggest challenge?
- I’m about halfway through Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green. I usually don’t like to offer thoughts about a book before I’ve finished, but there is an aspect to this story I’d like to share now. The main character, Aza, is a sixteen-year-old girl who has clinically diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the first novel I can remember reading in which mental illness is portrayed with such dignity, compassion, and truth. Aza says to her new boyfriend, “I have these…thought spirals, and I can’t get out of them…this doesn’t get better…I’m not gonna un-have this is what I mean.”
- Anyone else looking forward to season two of The Crown? Teasers for the new season here.