The World Is Full of Obvious Things
I have been teaching through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles for the last couple of weeks. The second of his Sherlock Holmes novels, it is my favorite novel to teach. The global story arc and individual scenes are prime for teaching plot, and it is one of the best novels to teach predictive reading skills. My favorite quote of The Hound of the Baskervilles is this:
My wife can tell you that I am not a natural noticer. (Her haircuts always look great, though!) However, a pair of books, bookended by two conversations, have helped me not only notice but also to make something of what I notice as a writer.
The First “Obvious Things” Conversation
My friend Brian dove into photography with a passion. One basketball season when our boys were playing in the same league, I had some time to talk to Brian, and one of our talks has proven formative in my writing career. The guy who was mentoring him as a photographer asked a simple question everywhere they went:
Where’s the shot?
My students know that question well. It is a question of perspective. What do you see when you remove all the “noise” from the picture? What can you find among the many “obvious things which nobody by any chance ever notices”? Brian recounted one experience when he mentally removed everything on a crowded street in downtown Memphis until he found his shot, a crack in the road that started at his feet on one side of the street and ended at the door of the restaurant on the other side of the street that was his destination that day.
“Where’s the shot?” has turned out to be a key question that shapes my writing. It helps define the global story. It shapes individual scenes and groups of scenes as they connect to form the larger story.
The Two “Obvious Things” Books
Andy Andrews has made a career of “noticing.” His background as a comedian certainly helped; as Jeff Foxworthy once noted, “I don’t make this stuff up; I just write it down.” When I first read Andrews’ book The Noticer, I knew that it was a book that I was destined to quote often. The sub-title says it all (without giving any part of the story away): “Sometimes, all a person needs is a little perspective.” The same can be said about the sequel, The Noticer Returns: “Sometimes you find perspective, and sometimes it finds you.”
Unfortunately, my wife’s haircut still goes unnoticed most of the time (unless my daughter, who cuts said hair, tips me off that Mrs. Right came into her shop that day). Give me a few minutes, though, and I can frame her haircut in a broader context, however contrived.
“Obvious Things” Conversation Number Two
My first mission trip to Haiti changed so many things inside of me that it may be worthy of its own book one day. I slept little and considered much. I spent the week with only one other person that I had ever met. We joined a team from Illinois and a few folks from Florida for a trip to Jacmel, Haiti, to help build a children’s home and serve the kids and the leaders of that home.
On the first night of the trip, our team leader encouraged us to journal throughout the trip. I had just begun to blog at the time–no books at that point–so I had already made regular writing a habit. He gave us three questions to consider at the end of each day:
- What did you see?
- What does it mean?
- What are you going to do with it?
Simple questions. Not new. Not earth shaking. Nevertheless, I spent the rest of the week noticing that “the world is full of obvious things that nobody by any chance ever observes” and what they meant to me that week and going forward.
From a Writer’s Perspective
One of the questions my readers occasionally ask is where my sweet spot as a writer is. I answer it something like this: My sweet spot as a writer comes when I can sit at the dashboard of a reader’s mind, move their perspective a degree or two in new direction, and improve that reader’s life by how he or she sees life differently.
Most of the time, that “new direction” comes when I can help a reader notice “obvious things that nobody by any chance ever observes.”
Did you notice…?
Speaking of obvious things, did you notice the one thing out of place in the lead photo?
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