Recently, my husband and I took a weekend trip across our state to see a friend get married. To break up a 7 hour drive, we stayed overnight in a little town where I’d found a good deal online.
It was a motel dating back to the 60s, recently renovated retro-chic to evoke a warm nostalgic feeling for a bygone era. But what impressed me the most were all the little conveniences the owner made available for the comfort of guests. The heater was turned on when we arrived, there were extra toiletries with fresh herbal scents, plush bathrobes usually only found in swanky hotels, and several retro bikes with baskets and big tires that guests could borrow to ride around town in style. I certainly felt pampered, and I will recommend the place to friends and family.
The owner of the motel didn’t achieve this pampered effect with silk sheets or huge hotel rooms or ten thousand channels of cable TV (when you still can’t find anything good to watch). It was the attention to little plush details that delighted me and made me feel like an honored guest.
There are many times, in my busy modern life, when I fail to notice the little details around me. I’m so focused on getting through my “to do” list, rushing here there and everywhere, that I miss out on opportunities to observe small but important aspects of my surroundings. When I take the time to slow down and pay attention, not only is my spirit renewed with the delight I find in the world, but my creativity is boosted and my writing enriched.
In college, I wrote a short story for a friend of mine who was a pure-bred Wyoming Cowboy. I’m a city girl myself, and I’m sure he thought I didn’t know the first thing about riding the range. But I knew just enough. When he read the story, he was flabbergasted that I had mentioned a saddle creaking when the main character stepped up onto a horse and settled in. It brought the whole story to life for my friend, and made me look like I knew what I was talking about, after all. (Even though I really didn’t ;-))
It’s this mention of small but important details in a narrative that ring true for the reader and bring the story to life. But gathering sensory details isn’t something a writer can do while sitting in a single room, day in and day out. It requires getting out into the open air, smelling the world around you, seeing it, tasting it for yourself. How else will you know how to describe the smell of fall if you don’t stroll around the neighborhood and catch a whiff of rotting leaves the neighbors are raking up? Or what it feels like when the sun dries the pool water off your skin on a hot summer day? These descriptions come from experience and taking the time to pay attention. And it does take time. We can’t all be like Sherlock or that guy on Psych.
That’s why I like to encourage kids to be lazy once in awhile. I fondly remember afternoons from my childhood doing nothing more constructive than watching clouds and deciphering their shapes. To this day, one of my favorite activities is to watch the stars at night.
Recently, while teaching a unit on poetry, I took a class of fifth graders outside to lie on the grass and choose a cloud to write a poem about. They came up with some wonderfully creative poems! Later, I pointed out to the kids that if they wanted to boost their creativity, it was a good idea to gaze at the sky every so often. It was like a revelation to them.
One of my favorite songs comes from the 1952 movie Hans Christian Andersen. He sings about an inchworm while the children are in school reciting their math facts: “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigold. You and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far. Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigold. Did you ever stop and think, how beautiful they are?”
When was the last time you noticed the marigolds?
Shauna E. Black lives in the high desert of the southwest with her husband and four children. She is the author of Fury of the Storm Wizard, a middle grade novel about wizards in cowboy boots. She likes to bake bread, collect wind chimes, and lie on the trampoline at night to watch the stars.