Welcome to Chapter 4 of our discussion on the book, On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts, by Ann Kroeker and Charity Singleton Craig.
For a recap of the first three chapters and for an overview of what’s still ahead, click HERE.
Today we’re thinking and chatting about the importance of noticing, how we can improve our noticing skills, and why this enhances our writing lives.
Co-authors Ann and Charity have a special video message for you below, on the topic of this chapter:
This was one of my favorite chapters from On Being a Writer — probably because it’s an area of weakness for me. I stink at noticing. Seriously. I’m terribly unobservant. Embarrassingly so.
I will say, however, that since reading this chapter several months ago, I’ve made a concerted effort to notice on a more regular basis. It definitely doesn’t come naturally to me, but I believe it’s a habit that can be developed and strengthened.
I loved this advice from Natalie Goldberg in her book, Writing Down the Bones:
“Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.”
When I read this, I thought about one time in my life when I really sat still, all by myself, and paid attention to my surroundings.
It was a rare occasion when my husband suggested that I should get out of the house on my own, just for some solitary time away to refresh and regroup. I was homeschooling three kids at the time, and I was deep in the suffocating mud of grief after losing my mom.
I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and drove to a nearby botanical gardens, one of my favorite places. I walked and walked until I found what I deemed to be the perfect place, where I wouldn’t be disturbed.
Looking back, it was exactly three years ago this week that I wrote the following words:
Setting: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa
It takes numerous strides for me to locate the perfect spot – the clearing near the end of a densely wooded trail. I finally find it, and pause to breathe in its majesty and perfection.
I reverently approach the massive tree trunk against which I intend to recline. Quietly I slip the straps of my backpack off my shoulders and gingerly place my red latte atop a neighboring boulder, aware that its existence is chiefly to serve this purpose at this moment. My own personal coffee table, au naturel, positioned by the Creator for my use on this clear afternoon.
I unfold my beach towel and shift my weight until I have achieved maximum comfort against the immovable mass of bark.
Yes, this is the place.
I am tempted to close my eyes, but instead I find myself surveying my new surroundings as if to capture a mental inventory.
I am perched in a sea of pine needles and chips of bark, with my new friend, Mr. Coffee Table, immediately to my right. In the distance I see soft, fluffy clouds contrasted against a background of infinite blue … they silently waft past the majestic mountaintops without even stopping to say hello. Not in a hurry to get anywhere, but not in the mood to pause and chat, either. A bit like me, today.
While fixed on the drifting clouds, my eyes bump into giant sentries, towering over the tangled sea of green and brown below. I decide that these stately giants must be the guards of the forest, and I wonder what their names are.
My attention is cast down to the humble subjects of these nameless guards, though they are far too densely populated to count. I prefer it this way, for they provide for me the privacy and solace I seek.
I lift my polystyrene cup to my mouth and wonder how many people have sat in this exact spot before me. I wonder if they, too, appreciated the swaying servitude of these leafy walls.
A shock of warmth rushes through my insides as the first sip of latte is enjoyed. I pause to hold the plastic lid to my lips, savoring the aroma within. A deep breath, chased by an even deeper sigh.
For the first time I notice two dead limbs directly in front of me, and my first thought is how beautiful they are … rotting beauty.
The layers and sediments of the split, horizontal logs reveal an undulating pattern that reminds me of the sea on a calm day. Evidence of decay causes my mind to reflect upon the verse in Corinthians – “though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Sometimes I feel it’s the opposite for me – that I am silently wasting away inwardly. My mind doubts that this verse applies to rotting wood, then it gives thanks for my privileged position as a child of God, then it wonders further how these logs before me shall be renewed in the promised new heavens and new earth.
I resolve to cease contemplating such weighty ponderings, and instead drink deeply of the red latte warming my hands. I try my best to make it last, but sooner than I hope, the cup becomes lighter in my grip. A mere tip of my fingers sends the unwilling sugar granules toward the opening in the white plastic lid. I can almost hear them clawing onto the sides of the cup in one last desperate attempt to be forgotten and left behind. But gravity is on my side, and instead I swallow the remaining sweetness with deep satisfaction.
I consider, with mild embarrassment, how many times I, too, have dug my heels against the force of God’s will. How many times have I wished to exist unnoticed in the bottom of a covered, disposable cup as opposed to being poured out as a drink offering? Yet in those instances, am I aware of the fact that my resistance is potentially depriving another of a sweet blessing, like honey to the taste?
A guilty ant is found crawling up my denim-clad thigh, and I flick it away, along with all thoughts of sugar and servanthood.
A wave of disappointment interrupts the pleasant solitude as the red latte inside politely asks to be dismissed. The cup at my side, which so recently delivered such pleasure, is now looked upon with regret and disdain, like a cute puppy that has just chewed through his first pair of slippers. I ignore the consumed latte’s request as long as I can, but the unrelenting noise of rushing water to my left has allied itself with my tenant, and I am forced to revoke its occupancy.
I let my vision sweep across the landscape once more and give the soft breeze on my face its due recognition.
Like a Band-Aid ripped off the skin am I ripped out of my silent reverie, and I rise, begrudgingly, to my feet.
The dream is over.
“Original details are very ordinary, except to the mind that sees their extraordinariness.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
For me, it was three years ago that I intentionally sat still and recorded the details of my surroundings in writing.
What about you?
Does noticing come naturally to you? Is it a skill you need to work on? How can you incorporate detail into your writing to make it come alive?
Additional Resource: Check out this blog post by Ann Kroeker, How to Generate Ideas for Writing
Link-up topic suggestions:
Write your own blog post or journal entry on one or more of the following topics:
Share a success story about a time you effectively practiced the discipline of noticing.
Share a funny story about a time you failed to notice and observe, and couldn’t remember any details about your experience.
Brainstorm ideas about how you might be able to improve your noticing skills.
Write a poem or essay about a place you visited recently, recording as many details as possible.