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Observation Journaling

It’s so interesting to notice what really captures my attention. Like thinking about what I’m thinking about. It’s abstract, subconscious awareness, I guess.

As a writer, I’m also surprised by the mundane details of my everyday life that make it into my writing. Like, the time I saw a man walking down the street, alone, wearing a gold, paper crown. His arms swung in a musical rhythm, and he seemed to float off the ground, there was such a lightness to his step.

When I returned home, I got a tiny notebook out of my desk drawer and wrote down every detail I could remember about this man, his crown, the street he was walking down, the weather and time of day. I made no presumption about where the crown had come from, where the man was going, or what he may have been thinking. I only recorded my tangible observations.

Then I tossed that notebook into my purse and made a vow to do more of this noticing, to become a keen observer of the world around me. Because even that which is ordinary, can also be fascinating.

Later in the week, I was writing a child’s birthday party scene, and that crown became a prop. I could see it so clearly on that man’s head, it became easy to transcribe the shape of it, the way it sat low on his forehead. My character’s crown is too big for her, and it flops to one side. Just like the man I saw, my character’s face is alit with joy, a festive lightness. As if they both know any occasion to wear a gold crown is a good one.

A few days after I started my "Observation Journal," I used the notebook again while waiting for an appointment. In these moments, I’m tempted to reach for my phone, but this time I chose instead to take in my surroundings. I noticed the colors of the rug in the center of the room, the tissue box on the end table, the flyers posted on the walls. And then, I noticed a woman’s shoes.     

They looked like regular running shoes with a bit of 80’s retro vibe. They were white leather with tan suede details and cream-colored laces. The soles were thick rubber and at the back, a huge gold emblem. I recognized this logo as one of a high-fashion brand, a company I would never associate with sneakers. This is perhaps what intrigued me about them.

I withheld the urge to make presumptions about the wearer of these shoes, or to wonder about whether they were comfortable, or worth the price she inevitably paid for them. (I did look them up later; they are $250 a pair). The following day, I saw another woman ahead of me in the grocery store checkout line wearing the same shoes.

It felt like fate, that these shoes should somehow make it into my narrative fiction. I’m not sure if any of my existing characters could afford these shoes, but perhaps they become an object of desire or admiration.

Even if they don’t make an appearance, this practice of observation has taught me to really pay attention AND to make creative, productive use of idle time. By challenging myself to describe my experience, I’m working to find descriptive language that makes the picture of what I see or hear or feel more robust. When I experience it in the moment, I can capture those details far better than I can after the fact, when I’m trying to recall the memory with precision.

I’m working on making observations beyond sight. I’m paying attention to sound, smell, feel, and taste, as I want my reader to have a real sensory experience.

I do get funny looks when I whip out my notebook and begin feverishly scribbling. But those sideways glances and puzzled expressions from strangers often become part of the story!


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