On Observing

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“Most
of us, most of the time, shunt most of what we notice into the same recycling
bin where we dump what we imagine. Luckily for writers, at least a little of
what we dump can be retrieved and recycled. Once you are at work, most of the
memories that serve you will be pulled from your vast back file of the half
noticed and half forgotten. As a writer you must observe the unobserved. The
details that give life and vividness are seen mostly out of the corner of your
eye...

Once
your unconscious mind has really begun to focus on a given project, it is
likely that your powers of observation will focus with it and seem to be
suddenly transformed. Things that fit your project seem to pop up everywhere
you look. The project becomes a kind of lens that gives the mind an uncanny
ability to organize randomness with an inner focus that will make what matters
jump out at you from every side. Suddenly, the world seems to overflow with
what you need. ‘When I am writing,’ says Edmund White, ‘I find that my brain
begins to store information in a different way than it usually does. That is,
I’m looking out for things I need, and I will grab them anywhere. And there’s a
magic any writer can tell you about: The world provides you with the
information you need, it seems, just when you need it.’”

Stephen
Koch, Modern Library Writer’s Workshop

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