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.

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.

Vignettes

I’ve been waiting for a brainstorm, a mental tidal wave, an epiphany that would inspire a brilliant blog, but the best I could conjure up was a series of vignettes.

In thinking about it, though, that isn’t so bad; it’s what writers do. We piece together snippets of information, insight and memories, crafting them into a patchwork of imagery and ideas. We weave together characters, stitch a sequence of events into a plot, trim the excess away as we edit, and with luck, roll out something creative.

blanketcroppedcwordsonthefly2013Vignettes can be discovered with observation, simply taking the time to notice the details, having the presence of mind to realize that what you are experiencing is special, something you can recall later and use when you need a nugget of authenticity.

Conversation in a clothing store:
I dawdled on the way home the other night, detouring to a chain store in hopes of finding some holiday gifts. I wanted to avoid the impending crowds sure to assemble in the weeks ahead. It was dinner time, and the store was quiet. While pondering sizes in the pajama aisle, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I whipped my head around, realizing a woman with a cart was trying to pass. I mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and pulled my cart closer so she could get by. But she tapped me again, this time harder, gesturing in a sweeping downward motion from my head to my toes. I realized she was mute, but her message was clear. She was complimenting me on my long coat, so I smiled and acknowledged with a thank you. I’m not sure if she could lip read, but it really wasn’t necessary. She nodded and moved on. We had enjoyed the nicest chat without a word spoken.

Twinkling in the twilight:
Rain was driving in, and like so many others, I was eager to get home for Thanksgiving. This was an unseasonably warm day with fog hanging in the streetlamps. Thanksgiving would be quiet this year, with only a few relatives in the area. Daylight was fading fast, and trees that had just been lush with orange leaves were now stark and bare. Facing a wall of oncoming traffic, I tried to focus on the yellow line but couldn’t help noticing a little shop off to my right. The door sign said “Florist and General Store.”  A few simple strands of white lights twinkled in the window and illuminated a hand-lettered sign… signs, actually… plural… posted to a pole. Each placard promoted a specialty item: cookies, honey, holiday greens… jam, fresh-baked bread… I thought it remarkable that the epitome of small town charm was alive and well, just feet away from a busy road.

Turkey Visitations
Wild turkeys come out of the woods at this time of the year. They had never visited before, then a few years ago, they started to appear. The first scouting troop consisted of 3 females and 4 young males, eventually increasing into a flock of twenty, gathering like clockwork in our backyard every morning. But it wasn’t until the weather changed to bitter cold, with the threat of snow predicted, that the toms came down as well, all pompous and puffed out with their tail feathers striking that familiar fan-like pose. They moved slowly, commanding respect. They “herded” the others and then finally, approached the seed. This morning, hearing a Bob Dylan retrospective on the radio… Subterranian Homesick Blues made me smile. Of course “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” You just need a turkey.

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Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Indulgence

I have a responsible blog ready to go – talking about marketing and the manipulation of words — but it will have to wait. Instead, I’m sharing a moment of indulgence stolen before the day officially starts. You see, once in a while a writer has to stop, return to his/her roots, and sit quietly, immersed in nature.

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I did that this morning without real planning. Always the best kind. I happened to be up early, it was the Sunday of a long weekend, and the house was quiet.

I wandered outside while coffee brewed to check on the newly planted tomatoes. The air was still; hardly a leaf moved, and yet a very subtle breeze prompted me to find an extra shirt – you know, the old comfortable kind, made before synthetics invaded the realm of cotton.

I took my coffee, poured it into a tall, thin white fluted mug— and reached into a stack of books, carefully extracting Pablo Neruda’s Selected Poems. Someone had given me this book two Christmases ago, but a person can’t just dive capriciously into poetry in the course of a 9-to-5 day.

This morning, however, was ideal. I set my coffee and book on the arm of a wooden Adirondack chair, one of the peeling ones that I had neglected to paint, although the primer had been carefully applied. I settled in, feeling the cool grass at the edges of my feet. The lawn was dotted with tiny white flowers, looking more like a meadow than a backyard. I knew they’d be mowed under shortly, but for now, they gave me a glorious vista that took my eyes up to the woods.

Everything hung in suspended animation… the clothes clipped to the line, the old swing set, the birdhouse hooked on a nail… The trellis was leaning slightly now, weighted by a young honeysuckle vine and compromised by a few weakened cross-bars where moss has started to grow.

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I carefully turned the pages and began with his poems from 1924… the Body of a Woman and Ah, Vastness of Pines. These poems reminded me that beautiful words in any language are just that – beautiful. And while I couldn’t translate more than a few phrases from the Spanish, I couldn’t help but read them aloud just to hear the sound, before bouncing across the page to their English counterparts.

The cardinals were calling now … one to another, tree to tree. I was enveloped in a thousand shades of green… some fresh and bright in the azalea bushes and early aster stalks… others dark and majestic in the mountain laurel and pines.

Carefully chosen words swirled around me, sensual and seductive, as did the smooth, warm coffee: Jamaica Blue, ground from the bean. Admittedly, I’m lured by the name.

By this time, I could hear a few slow cars passing in the distance, and as I sat there, reading, the next ones seemed to accelerate in pace. The day was definitely waking up.

Nearby church bells sang their subliminal song, but I neglected to count the chimes, because this moment was timeless and being treasured.

Then the phone rang… an early caller wanted to make plans for the day. The spell was broken, but the memory is preserved. For writers, this is like money in the bank.

Words in the Air

This is the season when words dance in the air. I’m not sure if it’s the strains of holiday music that carry them, the spit of snow that punctuates them, or the crush of people that propels them, but there’s clear buzz around us.

The air is charged with energy that puts the brain on sensory overload. Sights, sounds, and smells conjure up old memories and set new ones in motion. For the writer, this means an infusion of inspiration.

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A recent trip to New York City landed me smack in the middle of Times Square at night. The place was pulsing with activity. Words called out to me from neon signs that snapped to life, teasing with bold graphics that appeared and disappeared. I stood there transfixed, trying to discern a pattern, attempting to predict a rhythm as if to unlock a code.

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Words rushed by me as I made my way through the streets. Some caught in my ears randomly. “Free tickets,” “taxi,” “showtime,” “wait up.”

Illuminated skyscrapers talked to me, placing
plot lines generously in my head: “She worked
the street like a chessboard …” “He had only
been in America three weeks when he learned
a lesson he would remember for life.” “The child
has been right there, holding his mother’s hand,
when out of nowhere came the speeding car,
the gun shot, and then, the deadly silence.”

My eyes turned up toward the towering
billboards. I was clearly in The Valley of Advertising. Mountains of messaging rose around me. Clouds of steam gushed from subway vents but failed to obliterate the sell. Words I hadn’t thought of in a while pinged my brain. “Chestnut vendors,”
“Hot pretzels.” “Girls.” They all came tumbling down, landing like pigeons
on Broadway.

The idea of Broadway drafted a cerebral screenplay.  “Like so many struggling actors, Lance sat on the stoop behind the stage door, hungry for food and for work.” “As she rose to her toes, applause replaced the pain.” “He never liked the guy at the corner — too jovial for a place where it’s better to lower your eyes than start a conversation.”

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Cars honked in the distance and brought me to attention. I joined the sea of tourists and climbed the red glass steps to admire the city. Words jumped like a Slinky® from tier to tier. Words with dialects. Words with slang. Words I didn’t understand.

There were unspoken words, too, as a couple nuzzled in front of me, laughing over a personal secret. Another argued over something seemingly unimportant.

I began making mental notes. I took a few phone pictures, too. In this setting, I was an observer — part of the story but also removed from it. A nice place to be. A good perspective.