by Barbara Linn Probst
I recently read an essay that summarized American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s views on how to be an artist. Her first principle was: Observe the world around you—closely, hungrily.
That advice seems equally apt for a writer. Before we can write, we need to look, to see fully and well.
What does that mean exactly?
Is it more than accuracy—the 20/20 vision that indicates that we’re seeing what is “actually there” at a standardized distance?
Here’s what the American Optometric Association has to say:
Having 20/20 vision does not necessarily mean you have perfect vision. Other important vision skills, including peripheral awareness or side vision, eye coordination, depth perception, focusing ability, and color vision, contribute to your overall visual ability.
The American Optometric Association is clear: you might think you have “perfect vision because you can see objects at a distance of twenty feet, but that doesn’t mean you’re seeing what’s in the margins—or the colors, patterns, and movement that might, in fact, be only inches away.
As a writer, the parallel is intriguing.
To be a writer, I have to watch. I need to notice, take in, and respond to the world around me—in multiple ways, not just from a single perspective. Then, my imagination and purpose and voice can guide me as I incorporate the raw material of those impressions into the story I want to tell.
So I ask myself: What kind of vision do I have? Are there aspects of vision I tend to dismiss? Can I see more?
Aspects of vision and the craft of writing
Peripheral vision lets us see the stuff in the margins, outside our range if we’re only attending to the center of the image. For a writer, this can mean turning our attention to a minor character—to offer contrast, ease the tension, delay resolution, provide information, or plant a seed that will germinate later. In other words, the detour has to have purpose. Otherwise it’s just meandering—which means it’s something the reader will skip, appropriately.
Macro vision is like the wide-angle lens of a camera, illuminating the broader landscape. By stepping back, we can see things in context; they might lose their detail, but they gain in meaning. For a writer, this means paying attention to the setting: era, culture, climate, landscape. It doesn’t mean spending pages and pages describing the town where the story occurs, but it does mean pulling back (at times) to keep your story anchored in a time, place, and way of life. A “macro” sentence or two can introduce a scene, orienting the reader, or help to clarify why something has a particular impact.
Micro vision is just the opposite. It lets us zoom in and focus on the details, things we never could have seen from twenty feet away. Anomalies and unique aspects come into view, and things we thought were the same turn out not to be. For a writer, these are the tics and traits of our characters, their signature phrases and gestures, and the descriptive details that bring a scene to life.
We can’t include all the details; that would clutter and overwhelm, to no purpose. So we select. In the dinner table scene, we note the chipped Blue Willow plate because it evokes a relevant memory for the protagonist, or represents something, or will be important later. By emphasizing a particular detail, we signal: This matters.
Depth perception lets us know where things are in relation to each other. Without it, everything seems equally near and important. A writer uses depth perception when she brings something forward that had seemed minor or peripheral, drawing the reader’s attention away from the foreground. A sudden noise or a sharp movement—and something new jumps forward, capturing our attention, causing other elements to recede.
Color perception allows us to see hue, brightness, contrast; the more nuanced our color perception, the more we can differentiate shifts in tone or intensity. A culture’s color vocabulary—where it splices to make new words and where it lumps under a shared label—reveals what’s important. On the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, for example, there are no words to differentiate by hue, as we do in English. Instead, “colors” are named according to their lightness, darkness, freshness, and dryness—which makes sense for tropical forest-dwellers.
So too, the complexity of a writer’s lexicon can reveal what matters in the story. Are specific words needed to differentiate how the protagonist walks, opens a door, or replies at different moments in the story? A neutral word like said tends to be invisible, while a more precise word like muttered or snapped adds emotional meaning. We wouldn’t want our characters to constantly mutter, blurt, shout, or whisper, of course; sometimes neutral is better. But the more words we have to choose from—the finer our gradations of perception—the more purposeful our choices can be.
Coordination between the two eyes and among these aspects. Finally, there’s the integration among these elements. One aspect of vision may dominate at one moment, another at the next moment, but the shifts happen naturally as we move our eyes and look out at the world.
It’s the same with writing. One passage might be terse and direct, another more lyrical, yet the transitions need to seem natural. So too for the interweaving of interiority, exposition, dialogue, and action. It all needs to be seamless, serving the whole. As readers, we know when the writer has inserted a chunk of commentary or backstory that doesn’t belong.
As an exercise, I opened a novel I admire and looked for examples of each of these lenses. To my delight, they were all there. Then I dared to do it with my own book and saw right away that there are certain lenses I employ often and well, and others I rarely use.
For example, because I write in close third person, I don’t use “macro vision” as much as I might. The small settings are full of life, but there’s not much sense of era or the wider geography. Interestingly, however, in my new WIP place is central to the story. I can’t say that I did that “on purpose,” but it feels good to know what something in my subconscious must have known that I was neglecting this kind of vision.
What about you?
Are there “ways of seeing” that you tend to rely on, and others that you tend to avoid?
Think about a scene you’ve been struggling with. What would happen if you shifted to a different lens or added a lens? How might you expand your ways of seeing?
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for several award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/