“Breaking Habits of Seeing” is a fun activity from Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane. Practiced writers make unique observations almost as second nature, but all writers occasionally fall victim to complacency. If you want to challenge yourself or introduce others to the process of making “writerly” observations, try this exercise. Later posts will then use today’s photography and associated freewriting as a way to engage in the revision process.
Breaking Habits of Seeing
Whether done alone, with members of a writers’ group, or with students, always remember to let yourself indulge in the playfulness of language.
- Find a small rock. If not, any small, natural object will do: a stick, leaf, flower, pine cone, etc.
- Generate a list of observations related to your rock. Go beyond the obvious. Keep passing the object around and adding to the list (if done as part of a group).
- Keep looking closer. Don’t stop thinking and adding the list!!!
- Now circle any observations that another person would not immediately see as obvious.
Consider what this silly exercise has to do with becoming a better writer. What do the lists reveal? Were your observations mostly obvious or were you able to see things in new and interesting ways? Do you make things hard on yourself or is it easy to let the observations flow? How can over-thinking harm your writing?
The authors of Discovering the Writer Within then write, “What makes familiar things worth writing about is that we are able to find a way to see them that makes them new, both for us and the people we write for.”
I’ve made a habit out of reminding myself that it’s my duty as a writer to try to treat my subjects in novel ways. If I fail to do that, I know I will fail to engage my readers.
It can be hard to make observations that go beyond the obvious. To hasten the process, you will do the following:
- Grab a camera and head outside.
- Pick an inanimate object, preferably something that is familiar to you.
- Set aside at least 15 minutes (it’s easy to get carried away with this one, believe me).
- Limit yourself to no more than one roll of film and/or 50 digital pictures.
- Make each shot as varied as possible. Aim for a variety of angles and distances. Better yet, if you have time, return to take pictures of the object as the light changes throughout the day.
Freewrite for five minutes about the taking the pictures. What did you find easy or difficult?
You will continue to do more with your pictures for a future activity called “Twenty Ways to See an Elm Tree.” Photography and the revision process have a lot in common when it comes to re-seeing subject matter in a variety of ways.
This exercise shares the same basic premise as “Finding the Questions” as featured in the book The Curious Researcher. Many approaches exist to find what is interesting or unit about any subject. Never stop trying to bring fresh angles to your writing. Your audience will respond in kind.
Teachers Helping Teachers
Have you tried this or a similar exercise with students? I’d love to know so why not leave a comment below?