When I was a child, searching for something in my room, I’d eventually say, “I can’t find it!” and Mum would come into my room, say, “Open your big blue eyes…” and she’d quickly find whatever I was looking for. In later years, she would often lament that people don’t really look at things. They don’t really see. People tend to drive through our part of the prairie and say, “There’s nothing to see,” and Mum would say, with passion in her voice, “You have to look for the beauty here. It doesn’t come up and smack you in the face. You have to really look for it.”
She and my Dad were good at looking for the beauty on our prairies. After retirement, they spent countless hours driving out on country roads, Dad with his camera with the telephoto lens, Mum acting as his “spotter”, and they’d come home with wonderful photographs of birds, animals, wildflowers, and equally wonderful stories of what they had seen, for they knew how to look and really see. Today, as I commemorate the first anniversary of Dad’s death (Mum died two months before him) I remember their delight in the things of nature, and their passion for the tiny evidences of beauty all around me, and I am grateful. And I find a message about writing in that.
A writer needs to see. A writer needs to listen. A writer needs to be observant. When I was younger, I tended to sit at the edge of group conversations, watching, listening — I realize now I was absorbing everything around me, preparing for my life as a writer, one who puts down on paper the things of life, and from observation of all the small nuances in human interaction, in scene and setting, is able to create scenes that ring true.
In Julie Andrews’ memoir, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, she talks about how her Dad taught her to look and really see things. It was a lesson that was very familiar to me. From page 17,
“One of my earliest memories was his taking me outside to view a large ants’ nest, which he had discovered under a stone while gardening.
‘See, Chick, how the ants carry things from here to there? Look how busy they are.’ I saw them working within their little tunnels, hauling whatever they needed–and we pored over this nest for a good hour or more.”
Julie’s middle grade novel, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, calls to mind such experiences with her Dad, and illustrates how Julie the writer was informed by Julie the child poring over the ants’ nest, learning to really see. From Part One, the Professor is talking to Lindy, Ben, and Tom:
” ‘There aren’t many people in this world who really know how to look. Usually one glance is enough to register that grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that’s about all. It’s such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear. That’s what I want today’s lesson to be about. I want you to start noticing things. Once you get used to doing it you’ll never be able to stop. It’s the best game in the world.’ “
Noticing. Being aware. Really seeing. These are some of the most important tools in a writer’s toolbox. Seeing how children interact with their world. Hearing how they laugh. Making those actions come alive through words.
In remembering the lessons about seeing that my parents taught me, one other book comes to mind. It’s a wonderful picture book by Joanne Oppenheimer with amazing plasticine-work illustrations by Barbara Reid. It’s the first Barbara Reid book I ever encountered and I have loved, and been impressed by, her work ever since. Have You Seen Birds? is in itself a lesson in seeing. Her website is fascinating.
Open your big blue/brown/hazel eyes! What do you see?