In Oliver Sack’s book The Mind’s Eye, the author talks about how his mind played tricks on him after an eye operation. He experienced a blind spot in one eye that was amoebic in shape. But if he stared at some things for about 10 seconds with both eyes, the missing field of vision would magically fill in. The mind did its best to recreate brick patterns and clouds in the sky. I think a lot of us have our own self-imposed scotoma. And this deficiency in our visual awareness, especially as writers, is something that can leave us with stagnant descriptions, ambiguous environments, and only faint outlines of our characters’ surroundings in our writing.
What made me think of this was an article in Writer’s Digest by Tony Eprile that I read today. The author was discussing how we “see but don’t observe.” We become so familiar with our day to day surroundings that we don’t pay attention to them. He gives an example of how most accidents happen within a mile of our homes, presumably due to the fact that our minds are turned off to our surroundings because we see them every day. They become too familiar. Ever drove the same route to somewhere over and over again, for an extended period of time, and then passed by a building or tree and thought, “Hey! Has that always been there?” We all have.
Tony talked about how we can defamiliarize our environment. We can try and see everything around us as if it was the first time we’d ever laid eyes on it.
I asked myself if I was too familiar with my environment. Then I asked myself if this visual deficiency was getting carried over into my writing. My answer was yes to both.
So as I sat in a little coffee shop in Birmingham, I began to look around me. And then I started writing. I slowly panned the room and described things that I had never noticed. Here’s what I wrote:
The table I’m sitting at has aluminum legs and a wrap of the same around the rim. The surface is a 70’s laminate. It’s a two piece, and at some point in time, I’m sure it had a slide in section. The chairs match. There is a small lamp on the table and an orange ceramic vase next to it, from which sprouts a collage of plastic flowers. Across from me, a speaker plays Air Supply’s “Love out of Nothing at all.” It is surrounded by art. Art it everywhere. The walls a white-wash of ocher swirls. The floor, plain tiles spilling into zigzagging brick. There are tables. Couches. The coffee stirrers are not disposable. There are a collection of spoons in two separate cups. One marked clean, one marked dirty. Two metal buckets hold small bags of chips that go with homemade sandwiches. Do you see the teapot? Do you notice that the small tree in front of your is a magnolia? How is that club with the goat cheese? Did you stop chewing long enough to taste it? To taste the fatty-sweet smear of goat cheese. To chase it with the burning CO2 and hyper-sugar rush of an ice-cold Coke. There is a smidgen of tape clinging to the wall above the table. Its job is done. Its purpose fulfilled. And yet it hangs in this café, day after day, oblivious to its surroundings.
There were little things that I had missed. And I bet if I went again next week and sat in a different location, I would see even more. I completely forgot about the ceiling, for instance. I think it was all painted black, but I’m probably wrong. And although I could see through the big windows to the street outside, very alive with pedestrians and traffic, I left that out too. But as I wrapped up my lunch and left, I remembered a description I had given in my current novel of a similar coffee house. Comparatively, the one in my novel was naked. A winter tree stripped bare of its leaves. But now that I performed that exercise, I can steal some of what I wrote to infuse my current novel scene with a little more authenticity.
So take a look around you. Go ahead, even if you’re sitting in your own home. And open your eyes to the alien world surrounding you. And start writing.