How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.
We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).
Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?
While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.
The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)
Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.
One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.
When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. Megan lives in the Pacific Northwest and holds a B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.