Sunday, December 21, 2014

Only a Click Away

Tip: The better you see, then the better your readers will.
Sit in a public place and observe the people with their phones. Don’t whip out your own and start photographing or texting. Don’t call or email anyone about what you see. Resist that temptation. Obsession, maybe? Just watch. Remember that?
A smart phone lets you see with a camera instead of only with your eyes. The views differ radically. Once you frame the world to fit a rectangle or panorama, you’ve changed it, however slightly.  And that affects your readers more than slightly.
Good novels create a reality that’s sharper, acuter, and more “real” than reality itself. Can video, slo-mo, burst, or series of clicks capture the fullness and intensity of the entire world? What camera can compete with the five senses plus the human imagination?
Well over a century back, Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. “Each and All” mourns the fact that snippets and souvenirs can’t reproduce the forest or seashore:

I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.

Is photography depriving you of what Emerson calls “the perfect whole”? If so, that deprives your readers, as well. Perhaps a bit of sensory immersion would help.

Put down your phone. Disconnect yourself from everything except the physical world around you. Take a moment to touch, hear, see, smell, maybe taste. In this scene…

What’s most beautiful?
What’s ugliest?
What’s most intriguing?
What contains potential danger?
What contains potential pleasure?
How would you make someone care about the least interesting detail here?
How would you make someone care about the least empathetic person here?
What astonishes you?
What’s a metaphor to describe “the perfect whole”?

Don’t give up until you have a good answer for each question.

What Ezra Pound called making it “new” is less about seeing something different than finding what’s different in the presumably ordinary. It’s more comfortable to reach for the exotic. But if you’re a writer, originality is your job. Take it all in so your readers can. According to Kurt Heinzelman in “Make it new: The Rise of an Idea,” the writer’s task is renewing via a “return to origins.” Where do you find that? Many things originate in the external world—and at least sometimes you need to view them without the frame a camera imposes.

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