Do you remember your first day of school? I remember that I was excited, but I can’ recall more detail than that. I imagine now that when I got home that day, I drove my mom mad with details about amazingly cool! things like chalkboards, desks, coat hangers, paint boxes. No detail was too small, too mundane to be spectacular!
What would it be like if you found everything around you to be new and amazing, if the world was an exciting place to wake up to every day?
We’ve become so conditioned to our habitat, our customs, that we’ve simply stopped noticing anything that appears less than epic. But to a child, a Cheerio is an act of magic! A school bus is a marvel! An artichoke spectacular! Do you sometimes wonder where the wonder went?
No, you are not too old, and unless you really insist, too stuck. You can retrieve it by tuning back in to your enormous and innate powers of observation. They’ve always been there, but over time you got busy, started to ignore them, and they went to sleep from lack of use. No worries, you can get them back by waking them up and putting them to work. Again, and again. Repeatedly.
Our brains have amazing aptitude for recording detail. We hear and see and smell things all the time. We are aware of temperature, texture, weight, balance, language, color, relative safety or danger, constantly. Your conscious brain may be focusing on having a conversation with your hair stylist, but your subconscious, the primitive part of the brain is calculating and recording every detail in a ten foot radius, from the height of the display shelves to the left and the colors of the bottles on them, to your proximity to the door, to the relative humidity of the cool air brushing your skin, to the inflection in your stylist’s voice and whether the smile on her mouth matches the smile in her eyes.
You must think like a reporter. Reporters are trained to see what’s going on, to put the evidence together like pieces of a puzzle, and draw conclusions. You need not come to any grand conclusion from your observations, but observe, you must. You must begin to see the world not in broad strokes; ‘oh, there’s a school,’ and ‘oh see, there’s a dog,’ but in very detailed specifics. Go overboard! Scrape as many details up as you can. You can never be too specific. While you’re looking at the world around you and may be tempted to get lazy and summarize the vista spread like a banquet before you, but don’t fall for that old game. You will surely regret it. You will regret it because you will forget it. You will not remember the exact butterfly pattern on the bobble-head girl’s dress who knocked into the boy at the park playground and made him cry. You will not remember that the scruffy grey dog that dropped a stick at your feet and smelled like week-old salmon and sported one blue eye and one brown. You will not remember that on that particular day, you savored a peach flavor popsicle and that the clouds marched like a row of cream puffs against a sky so blue it made your eyes ache. You will not remember these things and you will not develop a knack for populating your writing with a thousand details unless you begin to flex that muscle of observation and put it to work.
Journal keepers all agree; when you go back and read through the books stacked neatly on your bedroom shelf, when you randomly open a book to a page and scan, it completely brings you back to that day at that cafe in that town, and remember everything about it because on that sultry afternoon fifteen years ago, you sat over an iced coffee, threw crumbs to feed the sparrows, and you wrote in your journal. You took a snapshot of your life -not a fuzzy half-focused one, but an honest to God totally naked look at all the florid details that filled your life for just one miraculous day. You wrote it down as a gift to your future self, and oh my. The sensation of reliving a day you had completely lost track of While you were busy raising children, managing a career, writing a book, caring for parents, making lobster costumes for Halloween parties, baking cookies, loving a spouse, is pure; it is delicious.
Each day is miraculous in about a million ways, but we humans have a short memory. Then another day comes, and the previous day gets tossed into the comer. And then we get another one! And another one! Pretty soon, there are thousands of such days and I don’t care how good your memory is, how many synapses you’ve got firing, how Leica-like your brainpan is, you can’t remember it all. That’s what a journal is for. Grab your journal and before you open it, open your ears and open your eyes. Learn to observe. Be an anthropologist. Be objective. Be brave. Walk into a coffee shop with nothing but a smile and a journal and sit yourself down at a comer table. Situate yourself with your coffee or your tea, and peer into the room around you. I mean, really look. See things like you had never seen them before and you were taking notes to retreat back to your home planet and report on the customs of the natives in your neighborhood. The man at the next table may be wearing glasses and reading a paper. Okay, good details. But what color are his glasses? What shape? Is the paper he’s reading an international journal or a gossip tabloid? The details tell a story. You can say the girl wore a dress. Okay, many girls wear a dress. But ‘the girl word a red dress’ tells us that maybe she’s a little fiery, a bit of a firecracker. When you fill your journal with details, you bring your images alive.
So get out of your comfort zone. Take a vacation from the familiar. Stop acting like you’ve seen and done it all, because cynicism is just boring. Train yourself to see your world like you’ve never seen it before. Begin to pay attention to the details, at least some of the time. Fill your journal pages with the flavors of your exotic life. You may not think your life is anything special, but I bet you dollars to donuts someone on the other side of the planet thinks it’s gosh-darned amazing. So act like it. Act like your life is a rich stew of tasty details, and write them down.