In this, the second of my pre-Christmas posts on the three gifts of writing, I’m thinking about the gift of awareness.
In ordinary life, a lot of what we experience is subliminal. We engage with the world through our senses, but barely notice what we are feeling. For example, sitting here at my computer I’m only really seeing the keyboard and screen, unless I take a moment to deliberately notice the four different colours of gel pen right in front of me, one of them a very vibrant green, the particular blue of the walls, the dark grain of the old table, the torn or crumpled bits of paper in the basket beside my chair.
When we write, we picture the scene. We use all our senses to fully imagine it. We notice the detail of our protagonist’s clothing, the colour of their eyes, the quality of their voice. We notice the smell of the air, sharp and clear on a winter’s morning, close and musty in an old drawing-room, or wafting from a warm kitchen carrying cinnamon, or cabbage, or toast.
Our senses are the gateway to the world of our story, and describing what we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell there is how we bring our readers in too.
In writing, in imagination, we can experience life more fully and intensely, and that vibrancy spills over into our experience of real life.
Another thing that we do in writing, which is part of show-don’t-tell, is to notice and describe our characters’ emotions through their bodily sensations. When they are angry, we imagine where they might feel that in their body, and so experience it in our own. Again, this habit in imagination spills over into real life, and we become more aware of how emotion is expressed in the body.
Writing non-fiction also brings an increased awareness, not of what we experience through the body but of what we know, the life of the mind. When you write non-fiction, you become aware of knowledge you don’t normally notice or think about – it’s just there, part of the scenery, like the background details I never notice when I’m working in my study.
How to look after a rabbit; how to write a biography; how to grow plants from pips – these are some of the subjects I’ve written about. Others include the skills you learn just by being alive for a long time, such as cultivating happiness, building self-esteem and handling bullying. I’ve never done much research because I write the things I know about through my own experience, and in writing them, I notice what I know.
This increased awareness of the knowledge and experience we normally take for granted and stop noticing is my second great gift of writing. Next week, I’ll close this little series with Gift Number Three.