We’re starting to make the turn toward autumn. Soy bean plants are yellowing in the fields. Cornstalks are starting to turn from green to brown. Goldenrod colors fence rows.
Too often, I hear people disparage the Midwest for its lack of dramatic scenery. Here in the heartland, we learn to notice subtlety and nuance. Look out across a soybean field this time of year and you’ll see the various shades of yellow: amber and mustard, poppy and flax. In the cornstalks, you’ll see chartreuse and pear, ochre and copper.
It’s good training for a writer, this practice of looking and looking and looking until you notice the shades you didn’t at first know were there. Learn this lesson first: nothing is ever singular. Not people, not places, not situations. The rich texture of good writing begins with this knowledge. The first lesson for a writer should be one of learning how to observe. We have to be willing not to settle for the first impression. Keep looking; there’s always something else to be seen.
The poet, Mary Oliver, says this: “I love the line of Flaubert about observing things very intensely. I think our duty as writers begins not with our own feelings, but with the powers of observing.” The quote from Flaubert that Mary Oliver references is, “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” We have to will ourselves to keep walking around our first ideas, to keep looking to see what we’ve missed. Margaret Atwood says, “People are individuals. Yes, they may be expected to be a particular way. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be that way.” Exactly.
When I was a child, I lived in a house of anger, and, because I did, I was always watching, always on guard for the first sign of my father’s temper. I learned that there were always moments that surprised me: my father singing the old hymn, “Rescue the Perishing,” while we drove along in our Chevy pickup; my father reduced to tears because he accidentally cut down one of my mother’s bean vines while hoeing in our garden; my father giving money to a family in need. This spiritual, tender, generous father co-existed with the angry man who was quick to lash out. Live long enough with someone, and you know the other sides of him or her. We have to live long enough with our characters and their situations to be able to know them fully, to see the nuances and shadings that capture them in all their complexity.
When I was a younger writer, I was hasty. I got my first impression of a character, and I put it down on the page and kept looking at it and only it. My characters didn’t have the freedom to evolve. I was more interested in how they served the plot than I was in the complications of our living. These days, I try to keep looking until I see something that surprises me. This means I have to be patient. This means I don’t write as quickly as I once did. This means I take the time to ask myself what I’ve yet to notice. I put my characters into motion. I wait for them to reveal themselves to me. I want to know everything there is to know about them, especially the things that they don’t yet know about themselves. The playwright and screenwriter, John Logan, says this: “Whether you’re writing a horror show or a James Bond film, I think what bubbles beneath is interesting characterization. The colors that emerge through storytelling is what a dramatist does. There’s always got to be something bubbling underneath that will erupt at some point.” That’s the thing that I’m always watching for, the thing that a character or a landscape or a dramatic situation will eventually show me if I’m patient enough and if I look closely enough.