Monday, June 27, 2011

Writing with our eyes

Today on my blog wanderings, I visited Claudia's blog and found this quote:

A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears.
Gertrude Stein

Now, I'm not so sure about the painting part, but the first part really got me thinking today.

Not only is that part true, but it's a vital part to our writing.

So how does one write with our eyes?

It's a two step process.

The first step involves paying attention to our surroundings. Wherever we go, there are objects that surround us, people that move about in our awareness, things that happen. That's the first part of our learning experience. Noticing how people move. Noting how they air their emotions. The big movements, the slow movements.

Then of course (and this is just as important) we notice people interacting with their surroundings. Some keep their heads down on rough ground, because they don't want to injure themselves. Others are so secure in their ablity to navigate the dips and bumps that they go about with their heads up, walking about as if they own the place. Have you noticed how people act when they walk into a crowded restaurant? Some never walk in alone. Those who do tend to avoid eye-contact with the masses and dodge their way to a table and find something with which to keep themselves busy. Books are dug out almost before the menu is opened. I-pods are switched on as soon as the order is placed.

People's interactions with their surroundings can, if we pay attention, tell us a lot about the people.

The second step to writing with our eyes involves applying what we saw on the pages of our writing. Does the bolt for the nearest table and attempt to vanish in the masses or does he walk in as if he owns the place? Those actions can be especially important when the writing isn't dealing with a VP character. They give the reader impressions to work with to build a picture of the character's personality.

Writing with our eyes also serves another important purpose (that I know I forget sometimes): Grounding the scenes. I've read more than a few stories where there's wonderful conflicts and brilliant tension. The characters are interesting. The plot has me intrigued. But there's a big problem.

The action is taking place in a white haze of nothingness. I can't work out where they are. Or if I am told, I have no clue as to how it looks.

BUT this is not a problem solved by pages on pages of description. It's solved by smart interactions by the characters.

For example, if something happens outside, we shouldn't be describing the weather. Our characters should be stamping their feet. Their breaths should be coming up in white puffs floating up to the clear moon...

And so on.

It places characters firmly in relatable surroundings without giving readers the feeling that it's a stage set.

Do you write with your eyes? What does the phrase mean to you? How do you do it?


  1. Awesome.

    I tend to listen to discussions, but I've never watched, rather studied, people as they enter restaurants or how they walk.

    But I should. And I will. I'll have to check out Claudia's blog too! Thanks.

  2. I love this post and your example at the end. When I read you quote I got the painter bit I thought it fitting because I think painters can turn sound into a work of art. I can imagine an artist being so moved by a musical piece that it sends their hands and paint brushes whirling all over the canvass until they produce something as evocative.


  4. I can't imagine how a painter would paint with his/her ears. What does painting have to do with sound??? I would think in most artistic endeavors that are visual, we would need to do it with both our eyes and our hearts. I think memory is very important, too. We end up calling upon things from our past that we never thought we'd use in a book...trying to remember the sights and smells and wouldn't it use ALL senses?

  5. I am trying to write with my eyes, by getting more observant and noticing everything around me.

  6. I'm getting better and better at it the more I write, but it certainly takes practice! I'm not a very visual person.

  7. Interesting. It's all about observation. I find the most enjoyable reads are those where the author has a keen eye for observation and integrates those observations into their writing. What you say is quite right, and it's a lesson to us all.

  8. I agree, observing the world around us is vital to writing.

  9. I used to be better at observing the small things around me than I am now. I guess I've had a lot on my mind lately. I'm planning to join the River of Stones for their July blog challenge It's all about observation and writing. Thought you might fancy joining in.

  10. You are so right, visualization is a key to writing. I tend to see scenes playing in my head, and when I don't I can't set my characters in them as securely. Seeing scenes is important for all the reasons already mentioned, as well as for choreographing a scene.

  11. The eyes have it. Creating images in a readers mind is possible if you can "see" it first and then write it.

    Thank You for a truly great essay.

  12. Agreed, Misha. We cannot write in a vacuum, exclusively from our own behaviors. Observations is critical.
    Great reminder for all of us who write!

  13. Okay--that should have been "observation" (singular). I think I was writing with my eyes closed in my last comment :-)

  14. Great post Misha! I am definitely a writing with my eyes writer! Visualizing really is key, and I love getting an image of not only the surroundings of my story but also of the characters. :)

  15. Wonderful post! You always seem to post things that I'm working on. I've never heard it described as such but I really like that quote. I might scribble it down on a post-it note to keep on my desk as I write.

  16. I love this post. This is makes a book come to life instead of being just another story.

  17. I like this post, especially the bit about description. I suck at that. I will write and write and then realize that I haven't even said what the place looks like yet.

  18. Misha, this is awesome, your eyes can gather alot info for your writing, though about the painter...LOL! Today i celebrate my blogoversary and your blog is one of those which send high redirects to my blog, so i wanted to say THANK YOU!!!:)

  19. Yes!- now I can feel like my obsessive people watching is "research"!
    You make excellent points here- thanks so much for sharing!

  20. Writing from observation is really what brings truth to our words. I once heard another blogger say she tried to write like it was for a blind person... how she'd have to describe everything for a blind person to understand. I thought that was interesting.

  21. Being both painter and a writer, I've changed that quote to reflect how I work.

    I paint pictures in my writing, and I tell stories in my paintings.

  22. Jessica, studying people in public places makes for some interesting observations. ;-)

    Wendy, now that you mention it, I think it could happen. Although I don't think I've ever painted with that sort of passion.

    Lol Michael.

    True, Stephanie. Every sense have to be used in a scene. Still, I think that writers have to keep the look of the scene in mind more than we think.

    Rachna it's definitely a habit to to learn. I'm very observant, but my issue lies in writing what I wee into stories, because I get drawn into the story too much. :-D

    Sarah I can see how writing with your eyes can be a challenge. But I think it's just a habit to learn.

    Tony, that's true. Integrating the scenery into the scenes suck us readers right in.

    Definitely, Libby.

    Rosalind, thank you so much for the link. I checked it out. Sounds like an interesting challenge. I'm still deciding on it, though. :-)

    Maryann, I find that hearing them is more important to me. Still, I find that being able to see the scene makes it a lot easier to write.

    Thank you so much Anthony!

    Susan I agree, if we only write from our own actions, the characters will all seem the same. ;-)

    Amy I have to admit that I tend not to bother with visualizing too much. I know what's happening, where it's happening and what it looks like. But I tend to forget to put the last two things into my story.

    Hehehe Caitlin you know what they say about great minds. Glad if I help, though.

    So true, Beth.

    Taylor the same happens to me. I'm adding it into my revisions. :-)

    Congrats, Murigi, may there be many more blogaversaries. :-)

    Hehehe KO it's definitely a form of research.

    PK that's a good way of looking at it. :-)

    Maria, that makes perfect sense.


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