The Place and the Mind: An Exercise

North Phoenix Meadow 2, with wooden fence.JPG

This exercise is designed to help writers bring together the two essential vectors of creative observation—the external and the internal—discover the connections between them, and learn how to move seamlessly between them:

Choose a place of interest to you and spend 20 minutes staying very still, observing everything around you in as much sensory detail as possible. Take notes, but don’t become too removed from the observation itself—don’t get lost in the notebook. You can also take notes by speaking quietly into a recorder. As you watch and listen, be aware as well of what associations arise in your mind—links with memories, items in the news, historical moments, ideas, controversies, hopes, disappointments, outrages, dreams.

When you get home, write freely for an hour, developing the chronotope—the time and space at the moment you were watching—in as much detail as possible, allowing yourself to cross over into your mental associations—the time-space of the mind—as you go. The key is for the associative links to be clearly motivated by what you’re seeing and hearing, and to make sure to return from each association back to the original, physical time-space. I often call these associative moments “trapdoors in time”—they often summon up memories or history—and they can give great depth and importance to even the most everyday physical moments. The key is to remember to resurface from the trapdoor and return to the story. If you resurface, the association won’t simply be a tangent–it will be a deepening of the meaning of the story.

Remember: The associations often have to be pared down in a final draft, but if you don’t put them on paper, you never have the material to work with in the first place!