On Seeing

Across the table, my brother asked about a study he had read on creativity. The study asserted that people aren’t necessarily more or less “creative” in terms of their output; they are “creative” in terms of what they see. “Creative people,” he said, “see the world differently.”

At the time, we were taking turns hitting golf balls with my dad and another friend, and it was my turn. I nodded and said Sure before swinging robot-like at some golf balls. It was not a new thought: one of my professors always insisted that writing is about seeing, that while we walk about in our daily lives we must train our eyes to see. This is part of the reason cliché is so hated by writers. It is unoriginal. It is seeing as someone else tells you to see.

Flannery O’Connor said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” This gaze of the writer—it is not a utilitarian gaze to tell more stories or poems, it is a gaze that seeks to find meaning for the object. I forgot my lunch this morning and waited in line during the lunch rush later on, and merely watched. A woman, her phone on the table, touched it delicately with one finger while a five-year old girl sat across from her. Two men in business clothes sat at another table, one leaning in and the other with his chair turned parallel with the wall, his legs crossed, like he was lounging on a Saturday afternoon. Two girls in front of me ordered enough food for half the restaurant, like they had been kicked out of the house but had a parent’s credit card. I played on my phone, surreptitiously watching it with the guise of doing something else. No one wants someone staring at them.

This is creating: seeing. It is assigning meaning to that which is around us. This can lead to the megalomania that some writers have, because the world is created as they internalize it; the world receives meaning based on what meaning they assign it. Unless, of course, the world already contains meaning and it is the writer’s job to dust it off and hold it up again, to let the sunlight color its facets.

Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writes:

Michael Goldman wrote in a poem, “When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write / She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.” What made me look up at that roadside tree?

The Muse: listen to that frustrating and insistent and un-utilitarian voice that stops you, and makes you look at ants crawling on the ground with a two-year old, the way the evening sun irradiates the cottonwood across the street, the young tattooed man sitting beside you in traffic, the soles of your shoes. See. See. See.

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