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A Writer’s Eyes Are Always Open

Photo by Peter Forster/Wikimedia Commons [1]
Photo by Peter Forster/Wikimedia Commons

Writers are made, not born. Writers are born, not made. Writers are born without maids. Whichever nature/nurture boxing glove you decide to swing in that battle, I hold that there are some distinct methods to cultivate a writer’s eye, and that those cultivations can result in sweet writerly fruits. (Please excuse that the last sentence mixed its metaphors with a waffle iron rather than a whisk.)

Our lovely kitty image above is figuratively indicative of my intent: as a writer, you must always look at situations with your writer’s eyes. But each eye must have a different focus, while still giving you a clear picture. Before I get into the wherefores of bicameral write-sight, let’s underscore one fundamental: there are stories EVERYWHERE.

No matter if you’re a poet, a journalist, a short-story scribe or a Tweetin’ fool, stories saturate your day—they are in your neighbor’s mail (don’t look without permission), your boss’s impatient gait, how your daughter wrapped your Mother’s Day present, why coins feel cold, a bat’s favorite breakfast, and how endless calls from AT&T about expanding your network offerings make you want to scream.

Stories Are Everywhere
Stories are not the province of the high and mighty movers and shakers; stories rest there too, but they are much the stuff of the commonplace, the cupboard, the errant gesture, the box left on the bus bench. You just need a writer’s eyes to see them.

So back to those bicameral distinctions: You need what I like to call a crazy eye and a calm eye. One eye is your open-to-all experiences self, your id eye, and the other is objective, your superego eye. A small example (and in a larger sense, how stories lurk in everything): You see a brightly colored bird. Your crazy eye opens—is there a story there on how the male birds are most often the ones with the wild plumage? Maybe an article on who the Audubon of today might be, if such a specimen exists.

Branch out: think about your first flight on an airplane. Could one of your characters have an overwhelming aversion to flying on airplanes, so that a scene on one in which he breaks down is pivotal to a story? What did Leonardo da Vinci have in mind when he designed that prototype flying machine?

Rely on Your Crazy Eye, Collect from Your Calm Eye
Let your crazy eye go crazy. Your crazy eye is a speculator, a dreamer, the one that swigs the moonshine even when the lip of the bottle is mossy. When your crazy eye whispers (which is quite a feat for an eye), listen.

[pullquote]Let your crazy eye go crazy. Your crazy eye is a speculator, a dreamer, the one that swigs the moonshine even when the lip of the bottle is mossy.[/pullquote]

But you also need your calm eye. That eye questions and discerns—where might there be a market for that story, what’s the natural lead for the story, do I really want to write that story, is there even a story there? Both eyes are your friends, and both are necessary for seeing that there’s a story in everything, but that that story shouldn’t necessarily be written by you. But you never know unless you open your eyes to it. (Personally, I like the crazy eye—it will sometimes make a crumpled bag in the street appear to be a body, before your wise eye tells you no.)

Your third eye, of course, is your calm Buddha nature, the eye on the face you had before you were born. That eye judges not, but winks at each percolating idea. (Though it does like strong shots of whiskey—oh, wait, that’s somebody else I know.) Keep all your eyes open, and story ideas will flood your inner screening room. Some of those blended visions will find their merry way to the page.

Writers Say Wow!
I’ve always loved the “beginner’s mind” Zen story that goes something like this:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

I’m as protective of my various opinions—on how crusty bread should be, how far to jut out your chin when denouncing the opposition party’s political platform, why you should wear black because there isn’t a darker color—as the next guy. I’ve gathered those opinions over time, worried over their posture, tried coloring their roots when they have gone a bit gray. But having a stance, an answer and an opinion on everything can be damn tedious sometimes. Sometimes you just want to say “Wow! Now that’s something!”

That’s part of seeing with a writer’s eyes: a feeling, a way of looking, that writers need; it’s a valve opening in your imagination, it’s dropping the opinion suitcases so you can sprint without the weight, it’s room for the fresh taste of the tea.


This cross-eyeful was excerpted from my new book (don’t hate me Porter!) Think Like a Writer, linked above in my biological bio. So, eagle-eyed WUers, do you employ a crazy eye and a calm eye when you scan your circumstances for writing ideas? Do you have to concentratedly bug out those writer’s eyes to see story/character/plot possibilities in your daily trade, or are your writer’s eyes naturally wide? What see you?

About Tom Bentley [2]

Tom Bentley [3] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [4].