One of my favorite relaxation exercises is sitting on my balcony right after sunset. The color of the sky, clouds blocking the sun–it’s all fascinating. The cityscape around me shifts, too. There are mountains in the distance, airplanes in and out of Sky Harbor, people and cars on the street.
But the creative exercise I enjoy most is looking at objects fading into night and imagining what else they might be. An untrimmed bush is easy to see as a child, waving his arms to catch a ball, which is really a round light on a post.
The dumpster in the hotel parking lot is filled with boxes, so the lid doesn’t close. The black-and-white graffiti transforms the dumpster into a Holstein cow.
When I teach (business writing in big and small businesses) one of my jobs is to inspire curiosity. Curiosity allows us to think in bigger and broader ways and to accept that we see things with our experience and expectations. That’s a huge piece of learning for writers. In most businesses there may be more than one answer, but there is generally just one “right.” In writing, there are many right ways to say the same thing. And that is hard to teach. We all want to be right.
It gets easier when I show images that can be interpreted in a number of ways and allow people to talk without interruption. Often our life experience stops us from being imaginative and creative. We then become scared of the imaginative experience. I try to make that experience part of writing.
“Is this what writing teachers are supposed to do?” a student will ask. “I came to learn to improve my writing, not look at pictures.”
“Pictures are another way of communicating, and writing is the way we move the images in our brain onto a computer screen for others to understand,” I’ll reply. “So yes, looking at photographs and deciding what you see and comparing it to what others see is a way to learn writing.”
Here is an example. I took this photo and showed it without explanation. After assuring the class that I had not altered the photograph in any way except to make it slightly darker to give contrast, I ask what they see.
“A swamp with plants and the moon rising.”
“Burned trees–a landscape after a forest fire.”
“A car coming at you when you are lying on the ground, drunk.”
“A photograph of a depressing painting.”
Good answers. And all different, based on personal experience.
Then I tell them how I took the photograph: It is the view from outside the building, through the frosted glass enclosure, into the building’s stairwell. The light is in the basement, and the “trees” is a pencil cactus in the window box behind the frosted glass.
“Now it looks lonely,” says one participant.
“It’s not special anymore,” says another, admitting that a basement staircase is not as exciting as swamp plants. Or lying drunk in the street.
Yes. And the way your reader sees your writing is not the way you see it, either. At some point, we have to move from describing the world as we see it to the way our reader can understand it. That’s what writing is. It’s hard. But well worth learning.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She is also working on a book about the invisible, visible world.