The Importance of Fresh Perspective

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I sometimes recall a long-ago Sociology class where our professor had us all sit on the floor. The objective was to help us gain a fresh perspective about the world – to look at things differently, to shed our assumptions about good and bad entities and to replace that categorization with an understanding of the important dynamic created by both forces.

The same is true for writing. All too often, especially when working in a corporate capacity, we get “too close” to the product or service. We assume that others know what we’re discussing. We revert to industry lingo or technical terms that may not resonate with the end user. We rely on acronyms that hold no meaning for the outsider. We overlook unanswered questions that newcomers may have because, based on our own experiences, we have already found those answers.

The need for fresh perspective is an excellent argument for utilizing an external resource – a freelance writer, an editor, or a consultant. “Fresh eyes,” is what I sometimes call it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is another phrase I use. To me, that’s the ability to say with brutal honesty, “It’s still not clear how to work with your company” or “I know what your product does but I still don’t understand how to use it.”

* TAKE A BREAK.

As an exercise, it’s wise for authors to step back or step away for a few days. Upon returning, we find ourselves more observant and critical. “I see what the character is doing, but what’s his motivation? Why did he choose to take that action at this particular time?” With direct response copy, a clear head can also catch important oversights: “I see what the monthly payments are, but nowhere does it say what the total cost will be. That seems deceptive.”

* LOOK FOR THE SECOND RIGHT ANSWER.

Gaining a fresh perspective can also help us avoid clichés. It’s easy to revert to catch phrases and familiar metaphors while telling a story. “She had a song in her heart.” Really? Let’s be cynical: “How did the song get there? What is it singing?” Perhaps we should explain more authentically: “After a week in the sunshine, her mood shifted from a sense of futility to a gradual joyfulness that caused her to hum as she puttered around the garden, pulling weeds and turning topsoil. The combination of warm earth and trilling birdsong lifted her spirits and opened her mind to new possibilities.”

* TURN THINGS INSIDE OUT AND UPSIDE DOWN.

As writers, we must force ourselves to see things others don’t. For example, we all see cars, trucks, and taxis as vehicles that pass us by on a busy city street, but what if we were in an airplane or skyscraper looking down? That’s an entirely different canvas made possible by a change of perspective. We become observers, empowered by our position. We see an interchange of moveable parts, we notice advertising on the tops of buses, we become aware of colors and patterns, might even be able to anticipate an impending accident or traffic jam. Fresh perspectives provides wisdom and scope.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a wonderful aquarium presentation staged around a kelp tank at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  As we stood safe and dry on the outside of the enormous 70,000 gallon tank, we could look in and up to see the fish swim by. We watched moray eels emerge from the tangle of plants… observed an immense sea bass rise to the surface and descend for food. Two divers entertained us – one cleaning the tank, one feeding the fish. Just seeing the continual interaction of these graceful sea creatures and the light filtering through the water transported us to a place we didn’t know … a place where peacefulness and fluidity could translate into a descriptive paragraph or plot.

So let’s ask when writing: “What would this incident look like if I were one of the characters? What would I see, feel, taste, hear, or smell?” Alternately, let us imagine ourselves encountering the incident as an observer. “What would make me stop and pay attention?” Sure, there is the obvious — “there’s a sinkhole forming in the road” — but perhaps it’s the small detail that takes us there:  “A mouse scurried across the road only to stop at the edge of the cavern created by cracking concrete.”

In thinking about the kelp tank, I’m reminded that “blue” might be nice in describing something but perhaps teal, the color of peacock feathers, or turquoise, the color of an underwater garden, might be more compelling.

The Story in the Spoon

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Are you stuck for an idea or plot line?  Try this trick.

Look at an everyday item — or even better, an usual item   — and think about it.  What are its origins? Its purpose?  How did it get here?  Mostly… does it have a story to tell?

Emptying the dishwasher, I was reminded about 3 strange serving spoons. They’re nothing  special in terms of style or silver quality … just good, old functional Rogers silverplate– probably picked up from a consignment shop or yard sale when we needed some.

I decided to gather them together for this exercise. Here are 4 easy steps to get you started:

First –  observation: These are well-used spoons as evident by the skewed tips. Instead of a rounded oval, we see the left side angled – worn away. What could have caused so much wear? Were they used in a restaurant? In a soup kitchen?  In the military? In a hospital?  Did they pass through generations?

Although relatively plain, the handle is engraved with a “B.” What does that tell us about the owners?   Were they of simple means or simple taste? What happened to the rest of the set? Who or what was the “B?”

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Does that “B” represent a family name? Baker? Bleufort? Brill? Could it signify an establishment? The Biltmore? Brigham? Birmingham? Might it represent a city or organization?

Second – research:  The imprint on the back side of the handle says “Rogers & Bros. SA? ½” or so it seems.  Thank goodness for the internet. I turn there to learn about silverplate and to try to identify the pattern.  After a long educational scroll, it appears that this is called “Tipped” and was produced in 1879, made by “1847 Rogers Bros” which is a mark common to other utensils in our drawer.

Third – discovery:  This is the interesting and dangerously distracting part… In searching, I pulled out two other, more ornate serving spoons. I identified one pattern as Old Colony, 1911, also from 1847 Rogers – but I cannot place the third design. This one is extremely elaborate with lots of scrolls and intertwined elements that run down the stem to the bowl. It almost looks as if an ear of corn or cluster of grapes is represented in the metalwork.

Fourth – inspiration: Now take what you have seen, learned, and imagined and turn it into possible plot lines. Let the story go where it ‘wants.’ If it holds up as a blurb, chances are it can be developed.  Let your mind wander. For example…

POSSIBLE PLOT: There could be child’s book or an historic fiction novel about “The Lost Pattern” – the story of a silversmith apprentice who created a concept so elaborate and wonderful, that he wanted to keep it to himself. Every night, when the factory was closed, he would sneak in and produce one utensil at a time, working from scrap that was going to be discarded. Overlooked because of his age and lack of experience, it wasn’t until the factory was commissioned by visiting royalty to create a place setting that he quietly stepped forward. The rest is history – as he joins the royal family for a remarkable adventure abroad.

POSSIBLE PLOT: Another plot line might be around the journey of a spoon as it moves across the country from an east coast city to a sod house on the plains… a story that explores migratory routes of settlers and ties together the women in a family who used the spoon to feed their loved ones and nurse them in times of illness. Perhaps the spoon is all that’s left when a prairie fire forces the pioneering family from their land…perhaps it become a simple object used in barter to rebuild their lives.

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POSSIBLE PLOT: Then there is the ubiquitous hotel setting which, as we know from modern movies and TV shows, is an inviting stage for colorful characters. Perhaps the spoon was used to serve an official of state and in an assassination attempt, was flung behind a table and wedged into the molding of a grand ballroom. Lost until a renovation crew discovers it decades later, the spoon becomes a critical clue. Dented by a ricocheting bullet, the spoon could prove whether another shooter existed or another shot was fired… an outcome that could change history.

POSSIBLE PLOT: But let’s not forget the love story… two simple place settings were purchased as a dowry for a daughter in 1892, by a young mother quietly fighting the repression of the Victorian Age. Wanting her daughter to grow up and experience all the joys of womanhood, the silverware was set aside until the daughter fell in love, right before World War I broke out. With her fiancé called to arms and separated by an ocean, the daughter waited three years for her lover to return – while the spoon took an entirely different trip all its own.  Reunited after the war, the couple finally found the spoon in a most unlikely location where it became a symbol of hope and endurance.

Wow – now I have 4 great plots to ponder! Happy writing to all.

Text Stop — The Need to Write

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I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny other than that it elevated texting to a basic need. Communication of course is essential to our well-being, but is not usually regarded with the same urgency as “rest stop.”

In thinking about this, though, maybe writing and communication are more necessary to human survival than might appear.

For people who write, words dance in our heads. Sometimes “they need to get out” – they need to be captured by pen or keystroke lest they vanish, lest we forget.

Once as a student, I woke from a compelling dream, and keeping pen and pad on my nightstand, forced myself to jot down notes before falling back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at my scribbles and saw they were gibberish. So much for the perfect plot line.

The need to write can be healthy in that it drives us to organize our thoughts, energizes us when we’re tired, pushes us to perfection, motivating us to add one more letter, one more line, paragraph, page — until it “feels right.”

Do you remember the movie Quills?  It was fairly disturbing, taking place in an insane asylum that housed the Marquis de Sade. While most of us associate him with other unsavory acts, this film focused on his obsession with writing as a protest against censorship and was a conveyance of mental imbalance. For him, writing was a compulsion, a therapy, a release. While I don’t recall too many details, I do remember leaving with the sense that writing was in fact, his “life blood.”

Sometimes the persona of “writer” makes us cranky as we watch others empowered with social media tools. OK, some are glib, informative and thought-provoking, but others are just plain self-serving, illiterate and nasty. To this end, we need to continually distinguish ourselves in skill, accuracy, and originality.

The ability to write serves different purposes. Sometimes we write because it’s necessary (“Jimmy, please write a thank you note to Grandma.”); sometimes we write to avoid face-to-face confrontation (“Susie, I’m sorry I stood you up the other night.”); writing gives us a voice (“Dear Sirs: The car you sold me is a lemon.”); writing conveys leadership. (“As my research findings show…”)

But what if writing is simply indulgent? I say, go for it! Sit on a bench in a meadow and pretend you’re in a Victorian Garden or on the high seas or in outer space. Writing helps us travel, imagine, age with wisdom or return to youth.

Yet writing isn’t all about emotion. This word-business can be lucrative, too. Sometimes aspiring writers forget that not everyone is an editor, English teacher, columnist or novelist. There are copywriters, speech writers, web writers, direct response writers, grant writers, medical writers, and technical writers to name a few. For any industry or profession, you will surely find writers who specialize in those topics and are gifted at generating vast volumes of content in a world that is hungry for it.

What about ghost writing? Could you do it? Not sure I could. I think I’d want to take credit for my work. (because — despite the gratification– it is work, especially when someone else is depending on it)

Sometimes the challenge of writing short is just as difficult as writing long. The 140 characters of a Tweet aren’t always enough to express a full thought, but then again, drafting a 400 page manuscript is not something most of us have time to do… so maybe how we write is a  matter of convenience, something we shape and format for the occasion.

I remember climbing into the cliff dwellings of Bandalier, an ancient Native American site in New Mexico, thinking that this need to write is wired into the human psyche.  There on the cave walls, ceilings, and rock sides are petroglyphs that tell the stories of long ago. There are tales of travel, symbols of strength, and a suggestion of seasons. Thanks to pictorial writing, history is alive here.  It envelops us, transports us, helps us understand– or in more modern terms, “it engages us.”  How ironic.  We act as if story telling were new.

Two Writings from a Retreat

As writers who produce on demand and on deadline, it’s important to restore the creative energy that inspires us. Sometimes a few days away can make all the difference.

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DAWN:

The sad thing is, this happens every day — and I miss it. Somewhere between the time the night dies and the day is born, the Lake puts on a show. The strip of land that separates sky from water turns purple and the air above it turns pink… and the flat plane of reflection below morphs to match it.

Everything is rosy to start. All  is colored by a soft brush. Slowly, slowly the light changes and the dock catches fire with the glow of the sun. Then the dappling of the woods begins as leaves shift slightly in an imperceptible breeze: yellow, green, yellow, green.

The strip of land turns gray, turns blue, as the skywater pales and the pink disappears.

By now, small birds chirp loudly overhead, distant crows call, and the tremolo of a loon cuts through the still morning air. The reflection eastward is blinding.

Shadows form. Backlit ferns become translucent in the unfolding plot as a red squirrel skirts across a carpet of dry leaves.

LATE MORNING:

Padding through pine needles, soft in the silent woods, we follow a new trail, but who are we kidding? These woods are venerable, old, and we can feel the native paths that run beside us.

There is great spirituality associated with the loon and legends that recount a gift given in return for its plaintive, guiding call. I look around to see if I can catch a glimpse of buckskin or moccasin, but I see nothing other than moss and lichen.

Listen — as the water laps dockside. You can hear the hum of a low-powered motorboat in the distance and an occasional splash of a fish breaking the surface.

Pointy leaves float against the sky that has fallen into the water.

Quiet. Quiet. There are no keyboards. My electronically bruised ears start to heal. Toes uncurl. Heartbeat decelerates.

Sweet pine needles in the woods cascade over rocks like a stream, rocks we know belong exactly where they landed some Ice Age ago.

Here in the woods, balance prevails, governing the play of light and shadow, the mix of solitude and the grand sense of belonging.  Nothing is harsh here. Edges are round where the lake curves; voices are hushed and dispersed.

Birds go silent as the sun rises. Steaming coffee courses through my veins.

The Lake beckons with its clear, cool water, but there is no rush today. This is my retreat  — at a time of transition.

Bee Sting

bees-on-asters-captioned-sm-c2014wordsonthefly As writers, we tend to look for parallels in life, but sometimes they find us. Lately my life has been filled with  bees – hardworking, pollen-laden bumble bees turning flowers into fruit in my garden — and cartoony, symbolic bees, contributing gifts to the “honey fund” at a recent wedding shower.

But yesterday, I received 2 stings of a different kind.
The first one was physical – an unexpected piercing as I pulled English ivy from a fence, obviously disturbing a hornet’s nest and releasing a plume of angry critters. The second one was psychological – an onslaught of the emotional sort that was no less painful.

Both evoked words:

The first brought forth four letter words… words that were slow to form as I looked at the yellow jacket on top of my garden glove and realized it was related to the searing sensation in my forearm. The second evoked a crushing sadness brought on by words of the frightening kind… words that required re-reading multiple times as I learned about a writer friend battling Early Onset Alzheimer’s.

The assaults were similar but opposite in certain ways.
The first drew heat to the site of the sting as venom spread into a firm white mound around it. I immediately applied ice which soothed the area.
The second drew a chill around my shoulders at the thought of a strategic, gifted mind in the strangle-hold of this cruel disease. There was no source with enough heat to warm the wound.

I waited for the signs of anaphylactic shock after the insect attack. Fortunately there were none. My breath continued to be steady… no sweats, no extraordinary swelling — so I resumed my yard work, hardly worse for wear.  The second onslaught, though less visible, produced a paralysis that lingered until the next day when I could reach out to my friend and share my concern.


But isn’t life ironic?
Here is a wordsmith struggling to clear his thoughts so he can write a book and be a voice for others … and yet there are so many others with crystal clear thoughts but no voice at all. Ah, the power of a writer!

The pain in my forearm has since subsided, but the pain in my heart lingers. The first experience reminds me to be more careful before plunging my hands into a tangle where I have no visual reference. The second one reminds to be less cautious when approaching the tangle of life… to resist the urge to assess and postpone – and to just go for it.


Stings of either kind hurt.

I did make sure, as not to malign the honey-bearing bee, to verify the difference between a honey bee and a hornet (aka yellow jacket, aka wasp). The honey bee is “robust, hairy, and sociable.” Wasps are hard-bodied and not particularly nice. Bees live in well-organized hives; the hornet lives in nests or in the ground. Here are some sources that further explain: Difference in bees, What’s a hornet? , What’s a wasp? ; Do bees die after stinging?

While the soft-bodied honey bee does die after stinging, the wasp lives on. Why? Because when a bee stings, it embeds its barbed weapon into the flesh and can’t fly away without disemboweling itself. The wasp, on the other hand, is tougher and thicker-skinned, and its slick stinger (technically the ovipositor of the female), can be more easily extracted which frees the wasp for flight.

This source notes that there’s actually a word for the process: “The process of stinging and dying is called autotomizing and only various honey bees are susceptible, not honey wasps or yellow jackets.”

So to ponder some philosophical truths, is it better to autotomize (that is, make a bold final statement and then die), or make a less dramatic statement and be free to fly away? As writers, we can imbue our characters with either fate.

But as a humble human being, I wish my friend the best of both worlds — to be a bumble bee in order to sting the public with a book that is brilliant and deadly to a destructive disease — but to be a tough-bellied wasp so he can leave his mark and then fly into light.