Unlock your observation skills

Once upon a time I taught a Beginning Creative Nonfiction Writing class to adults through a local arts council. My students ranged in age from late teens and twenty-somethings through retirees, and their writing experience ranged from hey I think I’ll give this a try to multiple academic publishings. What they shared was a desire to create art from truth and a willingness to let me guide them.

The course ran from 8-10 weeks depending on which semester we were in and I taught it for several semesters using the same curriculum, expanding and contracting as needed to span the time alloted.

My first class lesson plan was always the same. I opened with reading aloud an excerpt from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. I then provided an introduction to creative nonfiction and its various forms (essay, memoir, family history, journalism, biography, etc.), and ended with a homework assignment designed to get students to look at the world around them with fresh eyes.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is a book that I reread at least once a year. Written by a man who had Locked In Syndrome following a stroke, and who dictated his story by blinking one eye, it reminds me that no matter how hard I think my life is at any point, it’s not THAT hard.

It also reminds me that much of our lives goes unnoticed. Our senses are bombarded with information as we make our way through our days and we tend to overlook or simply miss quite a lot of what happens around us, and even to us.

To help writers tune in to more of what happens around them every day I developed the Locked In Essay homework assignment. I think it works for all types of writers. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Here are the details…

Locked In Essay— Sit or stand quietly in a public place (college campus, park, beach, mall, bus stop, food stand, busy street corner, etc.) for 15 minutes, and observe. Do not interact with your surroundings. Write a page or two about that experience. What did you see? Smell? Hear? Think? Feel? Were you inspired? Were you bored? Was it 15 minutes of your life you’ll never get back? What?

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2 thoughts on “Unlock your observation skills

  1. Thank you for this. A 15-minute-observation is something I try to do every day, although often it gets cut down to 5 minutes or less, which I always regret. Thank you also for introducing me to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – as yet I’ve only glimpsed the synopsis and read the opening pages, but I can’t wait to read more.
    Have you by any chance seen this recent post – called Capturing the Moment – at http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/capturing-the-moment ? I thought immediately of your post, and especially because you don’t – in your blog – try to “appropriate” the moment by grabbing at it with a camera, as so many of us do, but instead concentrate on observing and appreciating.

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