|Still Life With Chessboard (The Five Senses) by Lubin Baugin, 1630|
There's a game I used to play with friends, when I had the kind of unstructured time to lollygag around and invent these kinds of diversions. I wish I had a nifty name for it but I'll just call it the sensory inventory. For me, it started in Bestor Plaza at Chautauqua Institution (where I spent my summers as a kid), but you can do it anywhere.
Simply sit still for a few minutes, and inventory everything you observe, sense by sense. You can do this out loud with a friend or alone in your journal. Priscilla Long suggests some very similar exercises in her excellent book The Writer’sPortable Mentor: A guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.
I think most of us with decent eyesight tend to rely too much on just seeing. Still, it's a good one to start with. Look around you – without purpose. Try to see everything just as it is. Don't be afraid to stare. Point (if it won't get you into trouble). Really study what you see. Be aware of your peripheral vision too. What impression do the things at the very fringes of your vision make? What attracts your eye? Color? Movement? How do sounds or smells interact with what you’re seeing, or direct what you look at?
Now listen. We are constantly surrounded by sound. Inside there’s the hum of the refrigerator, the whine of the desk lamp, the whir of the computer fan. I live within 20 minutes of an airport and near a highway, so our neighborhood is filled with sound. Flight patterns that change according to wind direction, and the ebb and flow of traffic throughout the day. If I can’t sleep, I listen. Sometimes, a local owl calls wistful “who whos” against the whir of sparse late-night traffic. For a moment those sounds will be covered by the hectic whine of a motorcycle winding up on the now open road.
Next time you visit a friend or neighbor’s house; try to parse the different smells. Do they cook different food? Keep their doors and windows tightly shut up or wide open? Can you smell the wisteria that grows just beyond their back porch?
I take my kids to horse camp one week every summer. Coming and going, I consciously try to parse and inventory the smells (and sights and sounds, of course). This served me well when I wrote "The Horses." It's not just manure and horse sweat, there's the smell of straw heated by the sun and the super fine dust (pulverized by so many hooves) that coats everything, including the inside of your nose. Because there's so many kids around, the horses get fed loads of carrots and you can smell it on their breath. (Do you think of the color orange when you smell carrots? I do.)
(tip - if your trying to get better at smelling, open your mouth too, you smell with your tongue as well as your nose)
Eat slowly (it's better for your digestion anyway). If you’re eating food that you didn't cook, try to identify the ingredients that went into it. I remember having some chicken wings at a kid’s party and being pleased to identify white pepper in the rub (the cook was pleased with my observation, too). Offer your guesses to the cook or your fellow diners for comparison. People love talking about food.
If you see something that fascinates you and you can, touch it. What materials is it made of? Is it warm or cold? Think about the differences between similar materials. Does the wooden salad bowl feel different than the wooden railing on the porch? How does holding different materials make you feel? For example, the feel of a plastic bottle verses a tall glass in your hand.
Then there’s the human touch. Simply shaking hands gives you a world of information about a person in a touch that lasts only a few seconds. Think about all the people you've shaken hands with, and how different each hand, coarse and warm, soft and small, or so old and frail that you are afraid to apply any pressure, choosing instead to make a gentle sandwich, holding that person's hand lightly between both of yours.
Don’t Forget to Observe Yourself
Think a little bit about your observational biases and preferences. Do you key in on how people drive, or what kind of car they have? When you are talking with someone, are you most struck by what they’re wearing or the verbal tick they keep repeating like some personal catch phrase? Do you notice the animals in your neighborhood? Is it the stray cats and people with their dogs, or the family of crows that always seem to be arguing in the tree outside your kitchen window? Do you kill any spider you find in your house, or let them be in hope that they'll kill the mosquitoes that find their way inside?
Think about how your emotions might effect your perception. How do you feel about a cold rainy day when you have to stand at the bus stop in the weather to get to work? How do you feel about that same weather on a day when you don't have anything pressing to do and can curl up under a blanket and read a novel? Emotions can color what we perceive or vice versa. How does a windy, sunny day affect our mood, compared with a windless day when the sky is blanketed with soft gray clouds?
Mindful observation is its own reward. Before long, you will find that you are noticing more and more all the time. And, of course, it also pays off when you’re in front of a blank page and have to create a lived experience for the story you want to tell.
Don’t forget to stay in the moment. Try not to be distracted with thoughts about how you might use the moment in some future piece of writing (even if you set out to have an experience as research for a particular story –a particularly fun excuse to try something new IMO). You're going to trust your memory to that; this is all about filling up the well.