Advice for Writing–and Life

May 29, 2012

One of the best pieces of writing advice I've received didn't come from a writer. It was probably from a teacher, considering that she was talking to a group of students about taking our first trip to Europe. She told us to always look up.

It made sense as she explained it: most Americans are so focused on seeing specific things (the Mona Lisa, Notre Dame, etc.) that they forget to look up. They keep their noses in their guidebooks and their feet focused on the fastest route to their next destination. And by doing so, they don't noticed the amazing ceilings in the Louvre, or the precision with which Gothic arches fit together to become a cathedral's bones. And yet these things defined the places I was going to see even more than did the objects that drew the crowds.

I took this advice to heart, looking up in every building we were in. I have dozens of panoramic photos of ceilings. But for the first two weeks of my trip, I didn't realize that this wasn't just travel advice: it was writing advice, and even plain life advice. While driving from city to city, I kept my nose buried in a book, as I always did. I was an even more voracious reader growing up than I am now, and I had a book with me wherever I went. I even read at restaurants between ordering my food and when it was actually delivered. But then I buried my nose in my book as we left the hilly Black Forest of Germany; when I next looked up, the hills and forest had given way to the flat prairie of the Ile-de-France surrounding Paris. I was surprised and disoriented, and realized that I'd willingly missed out on some amazing pieces of Europe's landscape.

At that moment, I put my book down. In the fourteen years since, I can count the times I've read in a car on one hand. Instead of reading, I work out my novel while watching the landscape zip past. One part of my brain focuses on the passing landscape, while another part focuses on my novel. Since starting this, I've never been bored in the car.

It took a bit longer to realize that the advice to always look up sunk in as a life lesson, as well. I took a landscape painting class in college. Knox College is in the middle of Illinois, where there really isn't any landscape (sorry, Midwesterners. I'm a mountains and ocean kind of girl). The class trained me to really look at and acknowledge color, something I'd never fully done before. Purple tints in  white clouds that drift across the sky at noon? A black hue to the spring-green of new grass blades? Blue in the jet-black of the school lampposts? Of course! I started truly appreciating the landscape around me, taking a few moments to pause and stare at my surroundings to truly take them in. I started noticing little things—a gargoyle on a house in my neighborhood, the color of clouds as they scuttle across the sun.

As a writer, the simple act of noticing my surroundings—both the ordinary and the extraordinary—enriches both my personal experiences and my writing. It adds depth and complexity to my writing by giving me opportunities to do some descriptive head-writing. Besides that, the surprise of noticing something new is just plain fun—and quickly addicting!

So no matter where you are or what you're doing, remember to pause, look up, and take in your surroundings.

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