2 The everyday
2.1 Building a believable world
Writing is a perceptual art, one in which images are created via language in order for the reader to make meaning. It is therefore imperative that the writer's powers of perception are alert. Writing is a process of becoming aware, of opening the senses to ways of grasping the world, ways that may previously have been blocked. Often we take the world around us for granted, we are so immersed in habit. All of our lives contain relative degrees of routine. We go to sleep, we eat, we go to work. The things we may choose to write about will also contain repeated and habitual elements. How many times have you come across the word ‘usually’ in stories and novels, or phrases such as ‘every day’ and ‘every year’? How many times do you read about meals, or other daily routines like dressing, looking in the mirror, going out, coming in? These are only a few of the many designators of habitual patterns of behaviour, giving the impression of life passing in a routine fashion. Taken out of context such details might be uninteresting, but in fact they are invariably the parts of the writing that build a world for the reader. This world is believable because it appears to have existed before the reader started reading about it and will continue on afterwards.
Close your eyes for a few moments and think of the room or place around you. Think of the details that you would include in any description and make a mental note of them. Open your eyes and, without looking around, write down what you thought of.
Now look at your surroundings and write a paragraph (no more than 150 words) describing them, picking out at least three things that you haven't noticed recently – things you didn't think of when you closed your eyes.
The details you noticed may have come in various guises. You may have seen some dirt on the floor, something that isn't usually there. You may have noticed an ornament that you haven't looked at for a while, an object that's always present but not always seen. You may have picked up on the colour of a wall, the handle on a door. Some of these things will have changed since the last time you noticed them – maybe the wall colour has faded. Some things will not be quite as you thought they were – maybe you didn't remember the door handle being made of metal. It is useful to do this sort of perceptual exercise at regular intervals. In this way you will revive the way you see the world – by de-familiarising your perceptions you will reinvigorate your writing.
Here are some similar follow-up exercises that you can try when you get time.
Try the same exercise on a different, but still familiar, place. You can also try it with familiar characters in your life – describe them in their absence and then take note of the things you didn't recall.
Think of the details of a short journey – say to the shops, to work or even to another part of your home – a journey that you make regularly. Jot these details down. Now make the journey, making a point of looking for things that you haven't noticed recently. Write a paragraph about the journey using the new details.
Write a paragraph describing a simple action that you do every day – for example, washing, cooking, shaving, putting on make-up, feeding the cat. When you next perform the action, notice everything about it and afterwards note down details that weren't in your original paragraph.