I’m sure you’ve all heard of that psychological test, where the audience is asked to count the number of times a ball is bounced by a team, or the number of girls in blue skirts, and while they are concentrating on their given task, they completely fail to notice that someone in a gorilla suit has been dancing around in the background. There are various clips on You-Tube if you haven’t seen it, like this one:
The first time you see this test, it comes as quite a shock that you could have missed something so out of place, so significant, as a loon in a gorilla suit. It’s a principle that they take into account all the time when performing magic tricks, where they call it misdirection. The point, however, is one which is really worth considering when you write. People notice details – whole series of snapsnots of small things – and from these things the world is created.
When I’m not working, I work as a designer, and the same is probably true. For some designers, the art is actually in making all those small things, that they have thought hard about, as invisible to conscious notice as possible. If you’re designing a ‘natural’ garden, for example, the art must be concealed, or it the artifice will make it appear a pastiche of itself.
In writing, slipping in those small sensory details are what, I think, will create a time and place much more strongly than anything else. There was a lovely piece I read recently from Bluebird Boulevard, where she talks about the light that comes through the ivy crowding around the kitchen window, and the bright red lipstick on a nonagenarian. Those are the things we notice. They are what evokes the feeling of place.
I’ve been thinking about what a skill it is to notice those small details consciously, both as a writer and a designer. I think that perhaps it’s a question of being both within, and without.
Within, in the sense of being in the sort of headspace where we have the mental time and space to observe and record things. For me, that takes a certain peace of mind, a little out of the day-to-day whirl of obligations and deadlines. I suppose you could call it being in the moment.
Without, in that we are open to seeing these things. I saw an interview on the television recently where the interviewer really wasn’t listening to the answers of her subject. She just kept firing the questions she had written down without thinking on her feet enough, and allowing herself to become absorbed in the other person. Get out of your head and into someone else’s.
If you’re going to have more than one character in your work, then you’ve got to work a little outside yourself, I think. To really empathise, and understand what a stranger will say and feel and do, you need to leave the comfort of your own persona.
So by noticing all the details, being both within and without, you may just notice not only the gorilla, but that it is wearing scratched silver earrings, and feeling slightly sheepish about them.