Look and You’ll See: Observation as Writing and Social Practice

1280px-mexican_douglas_fir_pseudotsuga_lindleyana_branchWe began this year by doing observational writing. I took my classes to different places — a community garden, a meadow — and had them write down things they noticed. I asked them to only write down things they had observed, not their own opinions, and we talked about the difference. I see a green tree is an observation. I see a beautiful tree is an opinion. It seems to me that knowing the difference is a crucial interpersonal — and even civic — skill.

I urged them to be meticulous in their details. Is the tree really green? What about it’s bark? Maybe it’s really a tree whose needles are dark green on top and white on the bottom, whose cones are a warm brown and whose bark is several grays, and whose trunk also has minty-green lichen on it. Suddenly that’s a much clearer picture than green tree, and a much, much clearer picture than beautiful tree.

I also urge them to just describe what they know, not to make any guesses. If they know that this tree is a Douglas-fir, they can say that, but if they just think it’s some kind of pine, well, chances are they are wrong.

From here, we’ll continue to build on careful observation and attention to detail in our writing — observing and then developing opinions, writing detail from memory, writing about cliched things in new ways. This work will improve our creative writing, and will help build a foundation for developing arguments, since we will have practiced the difference between opinion and evidence. But this practice goes much further than this, especially for older students and adults.

This exercise gets particularly interesting when you start observing people. We want to say things like “the sad old man is walking with his granddaughter,” or “the beautiful Parisienne friends in skinny jeans are laughing outside the cafe.” These both sound like facts.

But how do we know these things? Are they observations or assumptions?

How do we know the man is sad and old? Maybe he has gray hair and a fragile gait. Maybe he is frowning or crying. If this is what we can see, this is what we should write. Because maybe he isn’t very old — maybe he’s just tired. Maybe he’s confused or angry or has onions in his eyes. The child might not be his granddaughter, or even a girl — all we can see is that they are young and of the same general coloring, and that the child has on a purple sweater.

And those beautiful Parisienne women? (Whom I should say I observed in Paris a few years ago.) What do I mean by beautiful? Looking closer, there is nothing remarkable about their faces. It is more that they carry themselves a certain way. And while at first glance they are all in skinny jeans, even that isn’t true. Also, I can hear they are speaking French, but I can’t really understand them, and I have no idea if they actually live in Paris or even France, or are truly friends. Yes, sometimes they are laughing, but sometimes they are talking intensely, and the one with the cigarette keeps waving her hand.

If I had just looked at that group outside the Parisian cafe and thought my own stale opinions about them, I doubt I would remember them. But because I slowed down and wrote what I could actually see rather than what I thought about what I saw, the whole street outside the cafe is burned in my mind. I can still see the honeybee investigating my coffee, the Coca-cola bottle at the next table, the thin street trees.

So not only is this exercise fun (especially when you’re killing time somewhere new), but it allows us to see more clearly. We see details. Individuals. We begin to question our assumed knowledge about other people. We allow things about them to surprise us. We stay in the unknown rather than jumping to faulty conclusions.

All of this is great writing practice, but it’s also great human practice. The more we let our observations rather than our prior prejudices inform us, and the more we know the difference between fact and opinion, the better off we’ll all be.

(This exercise grew out of one from an article about teaching for social justice, but I can’t remember the magazine or the author. I wish I could give them more credit — it was a great article.)