Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”
Henry James, from his essay “The Art of Fiction.”
Habit blinds us all: We fall into familiar byways without even noticing that it happens and begin to look at the world with a kind of sameness that can make both our days and our writing seem lackluster.
In Becoming a Writer, a classic work on the creative process, Dorothea Brande tackles this problem head on in a chapter called “Learning to See again.” In it, she suggests that one of the keys to fresher writing is to be in the moment when we are out in the world — to turn our “attention outward,” instead of constantly immersing ourselves in our problems or obsessive planning to the point where we miss what’s unfolding around us — the life happening right in front of us.
How do we become someone “on whom nothing is lost”? Here’s what Dorothea suggests: “By way of getting to that desirable state, set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.’” Here’s how:
For half an hour every day, transport yourself back to the “state of wide-eyed interest that was yours when you were five.”
Even though you may feel strange at first doing something so deliberately that was once as easy and natural as breathing, if you stay with it, you’ll find that you can slip into that state of total curiosity where everything is being seen as if for the first time, fresh and sparkling. When you do, you’ll find that “you are able to gather stores of new material” that you can mine in your writing.
Don’t rush to use whatever these half-hour “fresh seeing” mental excursions bring you. If you do, you’re likely to find that they turn flat and factual—a journalist’s notes. Instead, give them time to work themselves into your writing. As Dorothea says, “wait for the unconscious mind to work its miracles of assimilation and accretion on them.”
I love this notion of “fresh seeing” — of recapturing that sense of childlike wonder that made the world so exciting when we were kids. If we can bring some of that newness and fresh-born excitement to our writing, our words will begin to sing and dance. I’m going to give this a go. How about you? Write on!
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