Seeing the World Through A Lens You Create
A few years ago I took my truck into a garage here in town to have a mechanic fix something I’ve long since forgotten. I was waiting behind the customer in line ahead of me and being the curious sort of person I am, I looked around and noticed the sign above hanging on the wall along with another similar sign. I pulled out my iPhone and captured images of both.
I wanted to use one or the other signs for what I thought would be a repeating series of posts where I’d use the signs in all their 3-dimensionality to inspire me to recreate them, or something like them, using HTML and CSS code. While the code behind web pages can do a lot, it can’t do everything and a few years ago many common design techniques from print were hard to duplicate.
My goal was to show what HTML and CSS could do. I wanted to show how you could code type so it would sit on a curved path and how you could add shadows to it. I wanted to write code to mimic the rusted look around the edges of the sign and to try to reproduce the rivets in the corners and yellowing rust stains around them.
I had the intention to collect more images of signs like the one above and use each to inspire another demo and blog post.
If I walked into the garage today and looked at the same sign, I’d have different thoughts about it and I’d find different things in the sign to inspire me. Instead of thinking about how the text looked, I’d take more time to read it.
I’d notice the name The Busted Knuckle and wonder how that name came to be. What story does it have to tell? How did that knuckle get busted? Was it a usual bump and bruise that comes with working with your hands or was it something else? What if the knuckle was busted because of an unpaid debt to a less than savory lender of money?
Looking further I’d notice the humor in the labor rates and wonder what story led to their origin. What if old man Saunders kept getting in the way while the mechanics worked on his car? What if old man Saunders had an accident on the way home resulting from shoddy work due to his constant interference?
What if at a time after Saunders a different customer did get charged more for trying to help, became irate, and maybe broke someone’s knuckle.
As I’d continue to look at the sign, I’d notice the line about “repair & despair under one roof.” That sounds interesting. Why despair? It’s not exactly what a business typically wants customers thinking about. There must be a story there as well.
What if a garage owner reached the point of hopelessness about his failing business and decided to use it as a front for organized crime? What if a despairing garage owner gave up her business to find hope exploring the country on a road trip?
None of these are necessarily great story ideas, but hopefully they help make the point about how I’m retraining myself to see the world as a writer instead of seeing it like a designer.
Where a few years ago I was focused on how the words appeared visually and how I might reproduce their look in a different medium, today I’m focused on the meaning of the words and what they trigger in my imagination. I’m asking myself a lot of “what if” and “why” questions.
I’m working to change the context through which I see the world. I’m creating a new lens through which to view it.
Where I used to see every nail as someone’s solution to a specific design problem, I now think about who hammered the nail in place and why. I ask myself what if they chose a different nail or a chose a different place to hammer it. Where once I saw the world as a design problem to solve, I now see it as a solution for a story idea.
When I think about where I am in my goal to become an author, I mostly have a collection of ideas with sketches and scratches of notes. I have a smaller collection of stories fleshed out to varying degrees that come from my collection of ideas. I have a much smaller collection of drafts written and an even smaller one that holds finished stories.
I could easily look at my collection of unfinished work, feel dejected, and decide my attempt to write fiction has already been a failure. A year and a half after deciding to give fiction a try I could easily decide I have little to show for my effort and that it’s time to give up.
It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t feel that way at all. One of the more important processes I’ve discovered is when first learning any craft you have to train yourself to think like a person who’s practiced the craft for years. You have to learn how to see the world through the lens of the craftsperson.
That’s what I have to show for the last year and a half. I’m retraining my perception to take in my every day life as a writer would. I’m re-crafting the lens through which I view the world around me. If I want to be a writer, I need to see life as a writer and not as a designer.
You Get Out What You Put In
You probably know the expression garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). I first heard it in one or another programming classes I took many years ago. While the expression has some specific meaning for computer programming, the general idea is you get out of a system what you put into it.
Much of retraining myself to think like a writer is about changing my inputs, changing what I take in so I can use that information to reshape what I observe.
For years most of my reading was related to design, marketing, and anything that would help me improve my freelance design business. No longer. Now my reading has shifted back to novels and short stories, supplemented with books on the craft of writing, books from writers about writing, and similar.
I’ve transitioned the sites in my feedreader as well as my podcast listening habits so they have a greater focus on writing and subjects that might inspire stories. I pruned the design and marketing sites I’m subscribed to and introduced a few quality writing sources that pointed me to more quality writing sources. Then I added new sources and expanded on them while again pruning subjects of less interest.
If you do this, you’ll find over time you end up with a diverse set of inputs in tune with who you are and what interests you. You’ll end up taking in information aligned with who you want to be as a writer.
It doesn’t end with the inputs though. You need to practice writing because in the end all the inputs are meant to lead to an output. Toward that end I’m working my writing process. I’m collecting ideas, fleshing out ideas with notes, writing drafts and so on. However, I understand I’m in retraining mode and at the moment it’s the effort more than the results that are important.
This is hardly limited to writing. You can apply the same idea to anything you want to do. If you want to be a carpenter change your habits so more of your world is about carpentry. Watch more home improvement shows or shows about making furniture. Do carpentry things. Try to build a chair similar to one you like. If you don’t have a studio in which to work, build a small one and then a bigger one. Buy magazines about carpentry, visit carpentry sites and subscribe to those with feeds.
Generally take in more information about whatever it is you want to do and also spend more time practicing what you want to do. Once you’ve made a habit of your practice, increase how much time goes into the practice.
Practice Makes Perfect
A funny thing happens when you practice anything. You get better at it. A year ago I didn’t have story ideas or know how to come up with them. Now I find ideas come to me more often and at random times. Articles I read trigger ideas where previously I would have simply moved on to the next article. Conversations I have or overhear work the same way.
Putting in the effort to learn and struggling through the practice does work. You don’t always realize it while you’re struggling through the effort, but as soon as you move on to the next thing, you discover how much more you learned than you realized.
When I was working on collecting ideas, the ideas were difficult to come up with. When I moved on to fleshing out some of those ideas and adding notes, I found it difficult to create characters and plot a story, but I found the ideas started to come more frequently.
Now that I’m working more on taking my notes and writing a draft, it’s the draft that’s difficult, but plotting out the next story has become easier.
Working each step in the process and focusing on one step at a time is helping me see the world in terms of story more than anything else. Ultimately I’m retraining myself to think like a writer by taking in information to help me see the word in terms of story problems and by working consistently on writing stories.
The path leading where you want to go is already there. You just need to train yourself to see it.