In the Collected Maxims of the German writer, W. G. Sebald (1944 –2001),  he is credited with offering this advice to writers:

  • ‘Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.

Observation provides a foundation on which writers can build. It is, of course, not observation alone that makes Shakespeare or Dickens or Melville or Tolkien the great writers that they were, but keen observation underpins their work. Personally, I have spent a great deal of time with Dickens reading for fire references for a book I wrote on hearth cooking, The Magic of Fire (2002). Dickens is, in fact, one of the best sources of information on how people related to the fireplace and how they actually used it to cook. I took a train once through Scotland on a late summer evening. A volano-shaped mountain topped with orange stained clouds read Mount Doom of Tolkien’s Mordor. Moby Dick is an example of  a novel built on observation. One way it tells its story is through a series of discreet observations —  a meal of chowder in a busy inn, the nuances of the color white, the harvesting of ambergris — all tied together through the animating character of Ahab, a classic study in the obsessive self-destructive personality.

With children whose literary foundation is heavily influenced by mass culture — Netflix videos — blockbuster movies — it is especially important to try to focus them on observation of the world of real people and real objects in order to provide them with a vocabulary that can animate their stories with a sense of real life.

The art in literary writing is, in part, the art of finding the words to describe the physical world in a way that gives life and depth to the imaginary world of the story. As it is not easy to draw the room you are sitting in with a pencil, so it is also not easy to paint that room with words.

I think the trick to succeeding with observation exercises  is simply to get your students started. Let the depth of their observations — or more accurately put — the depth of their literary descriptions of what they see grow slowly by accretion. Color will come with time and practice.

Please feel free to share your experiences teaching observational writing. Examples from your students are welcome.

About the Author

In 1973, I was twenty years old, teaching children's art classes at my college, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and came up with the idea that the best way to encourage children to write was to introduce them to the best writing by their peers. Stone Soup grew out of that idea, and I have continued to publish Stone Soup for all these years.
I am also a culinary historian. I write about traditional foodways. My book, "The Magic of Fire," is about hearth cooking. My book, "Bread, a global history," speaks for itself. I am currently writing a bread history for a University Press. I publish articles on gardening and traditional foodways at Mother Earth News. I also publish on wild mushrooms and other food-related subjects.

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