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.

Stringing the Line

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I’m not sure when I began using a clothesline – could have been in a moment of nostalgia or environmental concern – more likely motivated by not wanting to spend money on electricity or having brand new jeans shrink 3 sizes. I don’t use it for everything, but it’s great for shirts and pants that benefit from brisk breezes and sunlight.

This year, my line was frazzled. For some reason, the cotton fiber disintegrated around the core. When used, it would disperse a cloud of dust that made me cough. With fall upon us, I decided this was a good time to string up a new line, and so doing, I realized it was a lot like writing.

First, I unraveled the twine, careful to keep it taut and anchored at both ends. Then I tied it and wound it multiple times around each hook. I punctuated it with  new clothespins, interspersed with the old, testing it out later in the day to make sure it held strong. I now step back and admire it, suspended bright and clean among the trees. The purpose remains somewhere between functional and aesthetic.

You may not want a clothesline in the front yard, but there’s something rural … homey… down to earth about it.  A lot like employing a style of writing that is gritty and unpretentious.

Clotheslines reveal a changing color palette:  blues, grays, browns, and burgundy in the cooler seasons; pink, aqua, celadon, salmon and white in summer. The line reflects the setting.

Occasionally the line supports memories –  a wizard’s hat and cape from a long-ago Halloween,  beach towels and handmade coverlets, an all-black array of tee shirts emblazoned with the names and images of rock bands.

A sturdy clothesline bridges time. Remember the teachings of the clothesline when writing:

1. Replace worn cliches with something crisp.
2. Anchor solidly in the context of the story or message.
3. Space word choice so you don’t repeat too often.
4. Punctuate as needed.
5. Mix daring information with comfortable reference.
6. Don’t weigh it down with verbosity.
7. Change up the palette – make it colorful at times.
8. Step back, review, and don’t be afraid to cut it.
9. Reposition phrasing for balance, continuity.
10. Take elements apart and reconfigure until they look right.
11. Don’t let anyone tell you how to string your line, but observe how others do it. (OK, maybe a good editor)
12. Use your line to let characters air out emotions and anger.
13. Admire your line but remember it may not last forever.
14. Invite someone to try it and see how it works.
15. Don’t shoo away birds that sit on your line; they will add interest.
16. Make sure your line will weather all seasons.
17. If your line gets tangled, unwind it and make it linear again.
18. When your line sways in the wind, enjoy it as open to interpretation.
19. Consider a second line for support.
20. And don’t forget your by-line.

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.

Writing with Metaphor — 30 Life Lessons from a Late Season Garden

Several weeks ago, while wistfully contemplating the last throes of summer, I wrote an indulgent blog. Although I was going to set it aside, it dawned on me that what I had done was demonstrate the concept of metaphor.

Metaphors are convenient tools for writers who don’t want to blatantly expound. By substituting a theme, but clearly letting “deeper meaning” slip through, a writer can convey an idea without hitting the reader over the head.

For example:

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In my late season garden, morning glories have overtaken the post where I invited them to spiral skyward. Cucumber stakes are leaning rakishly after a hard-hitting storm. Last year’s dahlias not only survived but have thrived, sending pink spidery pom-poms into the air. Tomatoes continue to grow despite their broken branches.

Impatiens bloom in a riot of color below, pressed up against white daisy mums that have been divided and multiplied. A butterfly bush that I thought was a goner sends violet plumes above the fray.

Basil spikes emit a fresh scent in even the slightest breeze. There’s eggplant and pepper hiding somewhere … coreopsis and cone flowers persist beyond their prime.

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So what have
I learned?

1. No matter how
I plan it, life will
take its course.
2. There will always be weeds, so if you can’t remove them, climb over them.
3. Aim for the sky
but if it’s out
of reach, spread
confidently across the ground.
4. Even a late summer flower can attract bees.
5. Don’t be afraid to pick the fruit; you’ve earned it.
6. An independent tendril will out-maneuver an inflexible fence.
7. Sometimes it’s good to have something to lean on.
8. If you don’t grow roses, take time to smell the basil.
9. Late bloomers can be worth the wait.
10. A treasure can be hiding in plain sight.
11. All colors are beautiful.
12. Don’t overlook the worker bees.
13. Plant a lot of seeds; some will sprout.
14. You can’t corral a good idea – or a persistent vine.
15. Sometimes we all have to deal with fertilizer.
16. Water generously but don’t drown the seedlings.
17. Invite butterflies into your world.
18. A lot of good small bugs can turn a big bug into lunch.
19. Not everyone is a gardener; don’t let them fool you.
20. Sing to your flowers; some will like it.
21. Gather strong stones to build a border.
22. Forget labels. The flowers will speak for themselves.
23. An imperfect homegrown vegetable tastes better than a perfect store-bought one.
24. Give a neighbor a perennial and he will return the favor forever.
25. Dead-head often; it will promote growth.
26.
A root-bound plant will not thrive.
27. Plants don’t color within the lines.
28. Sun is more appreciated after a rain.
29. Study a dragonfly if it lands on your hand.
30. Dare to dream about next year’s garden.

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Writing Without Words: Motion Capture, Body Language

Working on a narrative piece the other day, I thought to myself, “Boy, these people are yakky,” as I typed an endless stream of dialogue. That made me wonder if I could capture their conversation in fewer words or in another way.

Could I paint a picture where silence ruled?     utah-car-tree-road-1-inch1

After seeing The Rise of
The Planet of the Apes

last night (OK, I might not have gone had we not
been given a gift card),
I was impressed that a
non-verbal actor (the lead “ape”), played by the
talented Andy Serkis
of Gollum fame (Lord of
the Rings
) — could “carry” the movie.

Interestingly, I had just Retweeted something from Tech Crunch about Disney and Carnegie Mellon providing new tools for motion capture – the technique that lets actors like Serkis bring personality to characters like Caesar the chimp. The neat thing here is that instead of cameras filming the actor in a “motion suit,” the actor wears the cameras.

salt-lake-quiet-1-inch That made me think about non-verbal communication as a writer’s tool. It isn’t new – just often overlooked. We’ve “always” had mimes, jesters, and clowns use exaggerated gestures to convey humor. Silent movie stars and slapstick comedians relied on physicality rather than talk to make their points.

Today we have trainers who coach executives in body language… advising them to use steepling at board meetings, to maintain eye contact when selling, to uncross arms when wanting to appear open to ideas. Similar experts train TV personalities and attorneys in nuances that make them look accessible and trustworthy.

Could Quiet be King?

What if our written characters didn’t talk? Can we, as writers, pull it off? It’s not easy – but it could force us to be creative. Here are some examples; try your own alternatives:

Example #1:
With dialogue: The child in the shopping cart began to scream, “I want candy! I want candy!” as his mortified father bent low and said sternly, “No candy, Buddy. We have candy at home.”
Without dialogue: Passing the candy aisle, the child’s pudgy hands struggled to touch the packages, his face turning into a puckered beet as he screamed for sweets.  His father looked around sheepishly, then tried to comfort the child.

Example #2:
With dialogue: “What d’ya wanna order?” the waitress asked, tucking her chewing gum into her cheek. “What you got that’s good?” the trucker asked, leering — hoping she’d read between the lines.
Without dialogue: The waitress with a ponytail sauntered over, flipping her note pad open and nodding to the table of truckers. The first fellow sized her up sideways, then pointed to Breakfast Special #3 – Two eggs over easy, bacon, and home fries.

Example #3:
With dialogue: “If only I could find a way out of here,” the hiker thought frantically, shining his flashlight around the maze of the cave. “Hey, you there,” he heard a voice call, and saw up through a narrow slant of light, the form of an old miner looking down.
Without dialogue: Trapped in the deep recesses of the cave, Jessie tried to squelch the fear that gripped him. It wasn’t until he looked up and saw a miner and his burrow in a slit of dusty light that he knew he had been saved.

The purpose of this blog is not to say that writing one way is better than the other, but as well- rounded writers, we should know how to do both: use dialogue to give characters a voice and keep them quiet so we can use ours.