The Act of Creative Observation

My first post of the year was a rather dry and serious academic essay called ‘Effectiveness of Literature: Marxist Relationship Between Art and Ideologies‘ (which you should still read). So today, I’m posting something a little more lighthearted and fun, but still related (albeit slightly) and hopefully helpful for writers, or artists, out there.

As writers, we must be observant. There is no excuse not to be. We must be observant.

If you read my post ‘The Five Ws for Ideas and Inspiration‘, you’ll remember my remarkably ingenious and witty and groundbreaking maxim: Be curious. Be observant. Be lieve. (Hah.) I explained how the act of observation was one of the most important tools of my creative arsenal.

Regarding people:

© vladm / Shutterstock

Every person in this world has their own story. I do. You do. As much as I love talking about myself and my story, it’s only 1 out of 7 billion, so I make it a habit to observe and listen carefully to others.

Who is that person? What does she or he do? Why does she or he say those things in that way? I try and notice things people usually don’t notice, or things people don’t give a second thought to because it’s so familiar, so routine. Next time you’re travelling to school or work and see that boy who’s always playing alone in the park, instead of ignoring him, wonder with genuine curiosity: what’s his story?

Regarding places:

© jusco15 / Instagram

I consciously notice my surroundings, assigning colourful descriptions to everything that comes into sight. On a train in Japan, staring out the window, observing every nook and cranny of beautiful buildings, both modern and traditional; walking down an unexplored street, noticing hidden landmarks and garish signs; sitting on a bench with a cup of peppermint tea staring at the sunset, orange with vivid blue shades, serving as a backdrop to the magnificence of Durham Cathedral.

In order to write descriptive passages, we must know, inside and out, the physical scene we’re detailing. In order to convey messages of value and morality, we must know the psychological workings of our brains: the thoughts, emotions and sensations we process.

We must think outside the box. And often times, that box is created by ideologies (I use that term in a general sense to mean our conscious/unconscious ideas that have been shaped by the way we were nurtured) which naturally limit our views and perspectives.

It is our job to break outside of that box, to remove and distance ourselves from it, to view common and familiar occurrences with an exceptional sense of objectivity in order to add another dimension to our outlook, usually comprised only of our confining subjectivity. Don’t get me wrong—subjectivity is just as important when we draw from our personal experiences (and arguably, nothing can be more powerful) but it does limit your scope of being able to see, write and convey valuable truths otherwise overlooked.

I’m going to introduce 2 artists:


© 2014 hamahouse / Instagram

1. Hama-House is an illustrator in Japan whose Instagram account is an absolute joy to follow because of his speed sketches. To pass the time as he sits on the train or in a cáfe, he takes out his notebook and pen, and draws the very scene in front of him. He’s an expert at capturing a moment in time, a slice of life, and expressing the typically mundane in a creative way to provide meaning and emphasis not usually associated with such moments.

2. Johnna Slaby is an artist born and raised in Japan (sister of Reylia Slaby, whose photograph inspired my short story ‘The Arrangement‘). She has posted various illustrations on her Twitter, of which my favourite is her series The Japan Cards. Similarly to Hama-House, she goes out into the city equipped with pen and paper, spending hours in one location at a cáfe, restaurant or street, sketching the scene in front of her. Check out all of her beautiful sketches here or purchase them on postcards here.

This is a great exercise to do as a writer. No, not with illustrations, but with words. Sketch the scene unfolding before your very eyes. Paint the picture with descriptive words and phrases. Notice every single little detail—there are hundreds, even thousands, in just one snapshot. You can do this while travelling to work or school, on the bus or train. You can do this while waiting for your friend at Starbucks, sipping your caramel macchiato.

(It’s not as interesting, but you can do it with a picture or photograph too. These are often called picture prompts, but I find the hustle and bustle of real life more fascinating. However, if you can’t afford this luxury, pictures will do just fine. That was how my descriptive flash fiction piece ‘The Girl by the Lake‘ was formed.)

To finish, here as an example is one of my observation pieces (I was more concerned with capturing the details rather than writing beautiful prose) from 3+ years ago, written while I was sitting in a Starbucks in Singapore:

29 October 2011

My outdated MacBook on a wooden table, old and worn but kept clean diligently by the workers here at Starbucks, the one downtown beside Wheelock Place where Borders used to reside but is now closed due to global bankruptcy. My double shot caramel macchiato to my right, clenching the neatly folded receipt underneath, almost empty but still begging me to enjoy it, as I always do. To my left, a man, who had politely asked me if he could sit there (I, of course, replied to go ahead), ate a sort of pastry which has been cleanly cleared and now sits comfortably in his stomach, and is now pouring over the colourful pages of a graphic novel, from the looks of it Marvel and one of its many superheroes. Speaking of Marvel, the guy sitting opposite me (though he’s currently somewhere else and his girlfriend sitting next to him and studiously working through assignments is watching over his items) owns a MacBook—much newer model than mine—and has an Iron Man sticker pasted on the top, with the Apple logo in the middle of his red armoured hand; ingenious, really. Since the guy is temporarily gone, I can see the lady sitting at the counter right beside the glass windows overlooking the streets of Orchard Road, her long black hair streaming down to the middle of her back and wearing a flowery tank top with purple straps, also diligently studying. Further to my right is the sofa section, where a cute, middle-aged American (maybe European, I’m not so sure) couple is sitting, lovingly laughing over a newspaper article; maybe it triggered some precious memories from their lovey-dovey days. Just an hour ago, a gay couple was sitting there, one white with blonde hair and the other Asian with black hair—I venture, Filipino—their arms on top of each other and reading their respective novels and sharing a drink with the same green straw. It’s pouring outside, the rain appearing rather suddenly and just a few minutes before, people were frantically running for shelter; although some people are still waltzing in the rain, as if it were no hindrance to them. A good way to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. An extremely skinny girl just walked through the door, drenched, heading over to her friends. This particular Starbucks is known for housing a lot of international people; it’s often that you hear international students speaking American English, and the students who come here to study have a more sophisticated grasp of English, which is always a relief to hear. Once in a while, you can hear a couple speak Japanese, and in turn, I just smile inside, and a bit outside, but not enough to draw attention to myself. It’s a respectable atmosphere, the temperature maintained at a sufficient level, the jazz music loud enough to be enjoyed but soft enough not to distract from individual intentions and passions. It’s a good mix of popular jazz standards, and more minor but still beautiful tunes that do not at all detract from the quality. Fly Me to the Moon, Feeling Good; good old tunes never cease to relax, to put you in the mood and flow of indulgent meditation on the complexities of life turned simple and carefree to an extent. My coffee’s gone cold, I’m getting a bit chilly, and my left arm is a bit numb due to the unnatural height of the table (maybe I’m just short) but its been a while since I’ve written so much, and I’m enjoying it. Let me enjoy it a bit more, thanks.


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