Drowning in Human Experience: The Power of Observation

Illustration by Jack Hunt

Illustration by Jack Hunt

Good writers pay attention to the world around them. Whether you're writing recipes, newspaper columns, blog posts, fictional stories, or nonfictional essays, observing everyday life will give you valuable insight and ideas. This is true, mainly, for two reasons.

1. Creativity works best when fueled.

Writers are not (usually) people who sit in dark, solitary attics and summon brilliant characters and plot arcs from the dark recesses of their creative pit. I've tried. And I usually get stuck with characters I've already written or a blank computer screen.

The creative mind works best when it is constantly fueled. By reading, yes, but also by living and witnessing other people live.

And taking notes. I always carry a small notebook with me when I'm out of the house because inspiration always hits me when I least expect it.

Maybe I see a person on the bus who's nervous tick of continously zipping and unzipping a small pocket of her purse would be perfect for a character I'm writing.

Or maybe I pass a person on the street who is carrying a cello, a McDonald's bag, and a suitcase, and I just know there's a story there. So my mind will start writing possible backstories and character developments that I can use later.

Or sometimes a brilliantly witty phrase comes to me, and I must immediately write down that that man's legs in hiking boots looked like "potted palm trees," which may not be that brilliant, but at least gets me to look at the world differently.

But none of this would happen if I weren't paying attention to my surroundings, looking for quirky, human tells. And this search is vital and fruitful because...


2. We are always drowning in human experience.

That is why people read, to understand both the suffocation and the peace that humanity causes. And that is what really good writing touches on in some way.

The human condition envelops us always, and it is often easiest to see it in others or in our interactions with others.

Even if you're writing an epic fantasy with warlocks and warriors and blacksmiths, your characters, if they are true characters, will have basically the same emotions, wants, needs, and conflicts as people do now. You might find the perfect quirk for your eccentric mage by watching the man across from you on the bus. You might find a backstory for your hero by noticing the somber couple in front of you in line at the grocery store. Heck, even your non-human characters will most likely be drowning in the same sentient experience as humans.

But if you're not looking around constantly, you'll miss out on novels' worth of inspiration.

Any thoughts on observation? Comment below!