I don’t watch a lot of television, but one show I enjoyed was Monk. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it was an old detective show based around an OCD ex-cop with an incredible power of perception. A dead body would show up, the San Francisco police would call him in, he’d work his way through the crime scene, and he’d notice anything, absolutely everything, that was out of place. Then, of course, he’d put all the pieces together and struggle with his irrational phobias (he was afraid of nearly everything, including milk) to solve the crime.
While I’m not normally a fan of detective shows, there was something inherently fascinating in the premise. A character with near debilitating phobias discovering a story simply by paying attention to the chaos and disorder intrinsic in a crime scene. We do the same thing as writers.
Our stories are discovered through the careful observation of chaos. At some point, writers got it in their head that they create the chaos. And they can. But the best stories, come from the idea of chaos. The writer, then, must further explore this chaos, using all five of their God-given senses, to explore the scene of the crime, or messy life situation, or whatever the case may be.
Many writers fail, in large part, because of their inattention to detail. It’s one thing to create disorder and put the pieces together, but if the audience can’t see it, can’t smell it, can’t hear it, can’t feel it—there might as well not be any. Who would tune in to a television show with no picture? In the same way, who would read a book that didn’t appeal to the senses?
Flannery O’Connor talked about the “habit of art.” I think, what she meant by that, is that we, as writers, have an obligation to turn our art into habit. A habit, you’ll notice, is formed over time, by repeating the same action over and again. Writing is born of observation. A writer who does not observe the world around himself or herself is like a deaf, blind, mute detective trying to solve a crime. Not impossible—but highly difficult, and far from exciting.
It should be our goal, then, to form the habit of art. A good idea is great, but it is pointless without the power of observation, without the details of the natural world around us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we should ask ourselves what we are experiencing. It’s so easy to forget to experience life as we live it. We become so obsessed with how we feel (emotionally) that we forget to realize what we feel tangibly—how tight our shoes are, how slick our socks are inside those tight shoes, the feel of sweat under our shirt on a hot day, the lavender scent on your girlfriend’s neck, the roughness of the black and white bark on a birch tree.
When was the last time you touched a tree? Climbed it just to feel the bark in the crook of your knee? Have you ever felt the soil as you dug a hole to plant your rose bushes? Was it cool in the shade of a Spring day? Did you smell the earth, see the worms working their way through the dark dirt?
How then, do you describe what you haven’t experienced? You must deeply imagine it. Maybe you’ve never punched out a window in a jealous rage, but take a moment to imagine exactly what it would be like—the momentary resistance, the eventual give, the way it shatters, the way the cuts don’t burn until a half-second later, when your elbow-deep in the new hole.
But here’s the kicker—you can’t deeply imagine unless you’ve deeply experienced and deeply observed. The art of writing is really a habit of observation as much as it is a habit of sitting down and putting words on the page. Without one, the other doesn’t work. Either, alone, is a futile endeavor.