Using our Senses in Writing – Vision
Posted by Lisa Lickel on July 25, 2012
Seeing or Looking?
Fans of the James Cameron sci-fi movie Avatar will recognize the Na’vi greeting, “I see you.” As Norm explains to Jake, the phrase means more than hello/aloha or I’m looking at you, it means I know you – I recognize you. Even
more, to me, that greeting implies a certain trust, very much unlike our overuse of “How are you?” and our pat answer of “Fine,” which is usually a variable lie.
As one of our five recognized human senses, sight is often considered of first importance. Vision commands many other aspects of our lives; to lose it can be devastating. But to those who have never experienced it, other senses gain strength, not necessarily to compensate but to add depth to awareness. Why are such things as Balance or Perception not separately recognized senses? Because they are governed by other organs that command those senses; the nervous system carries signals to the brain, where the physical experience is sifted, judged, and assigned a value. I experience a sense of imbalance when my eyes are closed, but my sense of balance is controlled by the workings of my inner ear. I can perceive physical experiences like odor or dampness but I cannot understand either without smell, taste, or touch.
So why am I separating Sight from Looking? Seeing is a surface sense, like the words of the Na’avi greeting. Being able to look, to go beyond the first impression of sight, is as different as an X-ray from a visual exam; as different as a victim of prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces) from a victim of Treacher Collins Syndrome (those born without a face).
Just because a creature can see does not mean he can recognize and then understand or put into perspective what is seen.
How do I use the concept of “look” in my writing? Successfully adding a layer of deep examination turns a written paragraph into an artistic rendering. A line becomes two-dimensional when we add other lines to create a shape; the resulting shape becomes three-dimensional when we add a sense of depth with distance or shading. We live in a three-dimensional world and relate best to multi-dimensional experiences. How can you add these layers? By practicing the art of noticing. It is an art that we can all learn, but at our own pace. I’ve long admired such characters as the great sleuths – Sherlock Holmes in particular. What makes him special? He’s smart, of course, but he’s able to not simply take in a scene with his eyes; he can look at it with an inner perception that notices what is different, out of place, unique, exceptional. If you’ve never done this exercise, I encourage you to practice with a friend. Have someone pick up ten random objects, small enough to fit in a shoebox or such container. Test yourself by spending short periods of time, ranging from 10 – 30 – 60 second increments of time studying the objects and then listing them. First, trying to remember as many as you can, then recounting what you recall about each of them: shape, color, texture, size, relationship to the others. You and your writing group can practice a similar exercise by observing a public scene, such as when you go out for lunch or coffee and watch the people around you, what they consume; the decoration of the room, timing of the wait staff, and so forth. Practice looking for certain numbers of surface details first: each of you might pick twenty details of the outing to commit to memory for discussion later. Why did you notice those particular items? Gradually you’ll find yourself noticing richer layers of perception every time you look around. A chair will no longer be simply a chair, but (add your own details) a southern pine ladder back, worn with generations of hands caressing the top rail; the back legs slightly more worn than the front as it’s been pulled back and forth over the floor. The seat cushion of mauve checks tied to the back rails was a concession to the regular occupant’s pain; the stitching has come loose, maybe from being untied and tied and washed repeatedly…and so forth, leading the reader to conjecture with you not only about the piece of furniture, but about the story behind it.
We’ll focus on vision in a story I’ll start today and gradually add senses each of the next four lessons to create a multi-layered experience. Feel free to comment or add your own descriptions.
A one or two-layered story might start like this:
Selena joined Justin for a walk on the beautiful Circle Path before dinner.
A multi-layered, visual focused, story might start like this:
Selena put the oven on low while for the roast so they wouldn’t have to rush on the Circle – the path around town. She locked the door behind her, stalling a bit as she looked at her husband. Justin stood in the driveway, still as the light post, while he waited for her. She sighed. His hands were firmly stuck in his pockets.
One Response to “Using our Senses in Writing – Vision”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.