Mindset Exercise: Learning to See

I’ve known a lot of people who are good at action, can do big, sweeping fate-of-the-world stuff until the cows come home, and have characters who are never short of larger than life—but ask them for understated reactions or mundane situations and they can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do. It’s just not interesting enough to hold their focus. But the appropriate mindset for the small stuff can be trained, and this is one way.

The short version is that the answer is to go miniscule. So get your notebook, and pick yourself a subject. It doesn’t really matter what the subject is, except that it’s got to be one discrete thing. Size doesn’t really matter; pebbles and mountains are equally applicable. It can be alive—heck, you can even use a person for this exercise if you can convince them to sit still long enough. And it doesn’t really matter how long it’s been around, though a first-timer will probably find the exercise easier with an older item.

Got it? Good. Now start writing. Begin with a physical description, going into as much detail as you can. Pay close attention to the things that set it apart: is there something about the color? Has it been scuffed or damaged? If it moves, how does it move? Then branch out a little. If you can think of, or you know, a cause for one of its traits, particularly a distinguishing trait, write about that—don’t worry if you have to speculate, since that’s half the fun. Does anything about your subject seem to carry a hidden meaning? If so, what, and what does it appear to mean? You can write about its history, or if you’re feeling brave write about a reasonable future for it. If there’s a way to change how you see it—your angle, how the light hits it, what kind of ambient light it’s under, stuff like that—change that, then write about the changes. Interact with it and write about that. How many pages can you get?

You’ll note I didn’t say writing exercise when I titled this article. That’s because you don’t want to describe an object in this much detail in a story, even if your viewpoint character is the type who’d examine one that closely, and heaven forbid you try it with a gaming group. Instead, the object here is to work with your mindset. After all, to write in this much detail, you have to find details to write about, and since we’re dealing with something mundane, there’s no hiding behind mystical auras or extrasensory means of perceiving it. The only way to get a decent amount of material is to start seeing new facets of the thing as interesting.

I owe this idea, in a sort of roundabout way, to Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning. Midway through, he references a story, itself from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There’s a girl with an assignment, to write a 500-word story about her hometown, but who can’t figure out how to get five hundred words out of something that normal. The answer she’s given is, instead, to go write about the front of the opera house on a small street nearby, starting with one of the bricks. It probably sounded as odd to her as to anyone else, but twenty pages of writing later, any doubts she had about that little exercise were long gone.

The way I see it, the people who can only do big and sweeping are like the student in the anecdote; they’re just not used to looking for the interesting aspects of the little details. Instead, they sweep past them, focusing instead on trying to find their inspiration in bigger and splashier. But after you’ve spent an hour contemplating a flower or fifteen minutes meditating on the bubbles rising in a cup of soda, you’ll probably start picking up a few patterns of what sorts of smaller things might be interesting.

And even for someone who already has an eye for detail, it can’t hurt to practice. Give it a try!

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