Over spring break, we cashed in my husband’s frequent flier miles and Marriott points and took the kids to Washington D.C. where museums are free and drivers honk their horns 100% more often than Seattleites do. I don’t think car manufacturers even install horns in the cars of Seattle drivers.
A highlight of D.C. was a dip into the Renwick Museum, a gem that stands proud and plucky in the shadow of the big-shot museums. Its current exhibit included sculptures and 3-D art, structures built from thread and twisted branches, glass stones and old growth cedar, tire rubber and thousands of dead insects. The exhibit is called Wonder. It’s wonderful.
In the gift shop, while my daughter ran her hand over a $500 rainbow scarf and looked at me with pleading eyes, I ignored her ridiculousness and picked up a book by Keri Smith titled How to be an Explorer of the World: Portable Art Life Museum.
My daughter kept petting the scarf.
“No one needs a $500 scarf.” I held up the book. “But everyone needs this. And it’s $14.95.”
The format and visuals of the book appealed to me instantly; the text appears handwritten, complete with crossed-out words, underlines, playful lists, simple line sketches and quotes from smart artists. And the message? Pay attention to the world. Notice stuff. Pick up weird things you find when you’re out and about and study them. Observe patterns in both nature and urban areas.
We writers are explorers of the world—the real world and our fictional worlds. We are eavesdroppers and question-askers. We are curious, and we spot connections, themes and symbolism in our culture, jobs, neighborhoods and homes. We have the privilege of experiencing deep purple emotions, jagged edges and glass smooth surfaces, upside-down Technicolor in 3-D. Not-writers aren’t so lucky (she said in a whisper so the not-writers wouldn’t feel too bad about themselves).
Yet we juggle fiction writing, day jobs, caring for children and/or aging parents, mental and physical health. In other words, sometimes we forget to pay attention to the world.
Thank goodness, then, for How to be an Explorer of the World, in which Smith offers fifty-nine Explorations to develop our exploring, noticing, watching muscles, the very fibers we use in our fiction writing.
Perspective and POV
In several places throughout the book, Smith highlights the importance of perspective and point of view. For example, I am a middle class white mother writer Christian married Abe Lincoln enthusiast with bipolar disorder living in Seattle where no one impatiently honks his car horn. My world view is shaped, in large part, by those elements of my identity. That’s not to say my world view is static. In fact, I hope it does evolve (except for the horn-honking) as I connect with others who have different biases, backgrounds, beliefs and blind spots.
In Exploration #40, Smith invites us to alter our own perspective by looking at something upside down, through squinty eyes, or with rose-colored sunglasses.
How does varying our way of looking at something affect what we see? How does it affect our ability to see it? How and why do I describe a scene, event, taste or color differently than someone else? Why are eye witnesses so unreliable?
As a writer, when I invite a character into being, I care less about his favorite food, his occupation, his hair color, or whether he has pets. I do care about what perspective he brings to the story-table. To understand a character, we must zip ourselves into his body and ask, what does this unique protagonist seek from the world? What are his expectations in a romantic relationship, his feelings when he arrives at a dinner party or job interview, his views on the value of money and family, his response to fear, pain, deep emotion?
Answers to these questions allow us to learn why he has arrived in his particular stance with his unique values, opinions, fears and biases. We will understand what he needs and why. And how he’s going to get it. And why he needs to get it. And why he will have an exceptionally hard time getting it. Et voila! Conflict and tension arise from the murky waters of Story, all because we have taken the time to see and understand the character’s orientation to the world.
In Exploration #24, Smith invites us to combine groups of objects for visual or emotional contrast, “items that are natural vs. human-made, contrasting colors, alive vs. decaying, light vs. dark.”
This exercise led me to consider how the full cast of characters in a work of fiction interact and play off one another. A secondary character might be the antagonist, or he may be a foil, set up to highlight the protagonist’s traits. (The term “foil” comes from the attempt to make a gemstone more beautiful by placing foil behind it.)
To give an example of how foils work in Story, we might look at The Great Gatsby (Tom Buchanan is the foil to Jay Gatsby). Han Solo to Luke Skywalker. Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes. One’s traits and desires contrast and highlight the traits and desires of another. How might your story benefit from greater contrast between characters? What elements of your protagonist’s persona could benefit from a spotlight? A foil often points to some element of the protagonist so the author doesn’t have to.
A Character’s Cracks (insert plumber joke here)
In Exploration #8 Smith asks us to map out the pavement cracks in our neighborhood. While driving on a new street with perfectly poured pavement makes my car feel much fancier than it is, I love the idea of searching for and mapping the cracks in our neighborhood. These pavement cracks add depth and personality to the veins and grids of our transportation network. And most days, unless we hit a pot hole, we don’t even notice them.
Cracks in our character may appear as an Achilles heel or an internal need or desire. An external event may also cause a crack in our character. Imagine you are driving on the freeway and a piece of gravel nicks your windshield, causing only a minute ding in the glass. You may ignore it; you may even forget it’s there, but it won’t take too many bumps to jiggle that ding into a long line that spans the width of your glass, usually right at eye level.
We tend to think cracks are bad (insert second plumber joke), but in Story, a character without cracks is about as exciting as dryer lint. The cracks in our characters highlight their fragility, and we readers fear that these cracks, when under pressure and duress, may cause the character to shatter. While cracks in real life cause stress and discomfort, we sure do love to read about them in fiction. What external or internal cracks do you notice in your characters? How do the characters reveal or disguise these cracks?
An Invitation to Notice–Please RSVP
Smith’s invitation is simple: Notice the world. Explore. Pay attention. And now, try this:
Wherever you are, look up from this screen and notice something you’d miss if you weren’t an explorer of the world. Will you share what you just noticed? If you are already an explorer, how do you observe and record the details that others miss? How does the art of noticing inform your writing? Are you a horn-honker?
Thank you for reading, sharing, and most of all, for noticing.
Photo compliments of Flickr’s Darin McClure.
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