What writers see in life, language and literature

At the end of this essay, I will be asking for your help in writing a proposal for a new book: “What Writers See: In Life, Language, and Literature.”

What do I mean when I ask the question “What do writers see?”

I once heard of a clever writing prompt given to school children: “If you had a third eye, what could you see?” Writers, I would argue, already have a third eye. They use it to see life, language and literature in special ways.

This third eye has a number of different names. It’s called vision (and then revision), curiosity, inspiration, imagination, visitation of the muse. When an ordinary person says “I see,” she usually means “I understand.” If she’s a writer, she means that and much more. For the writer, seeing is a synecdochic and synesthetic gerund. It stands for all the senses, all the ways of knowing.

Even blind and partially blind writers — from Homer to Milton to Joyce to Huxley — see. Like Tiresias, they are seers.

By definition, good writers don’t keep their visions to themselves. They stand in for us, helping us to see what they see.

My first analogy: Many years ago now, I went with my brother Vincent, who has an artificial eye, to a baseball game in Baltimore at Camden Yards. It was around the time he was getting surgeries on his eyes and could barely see. The Red Sox played the Orioles. It turned out to be one of the most exciting games ever, with pitcher Hideo Nomo twirling a no-hitter against the Birds. Nomo threw a No-No.

Vinny could make out the green of the outfield, but all the details were left to his imagination and my narration, which I delivered pitch by pitch into his right ear. What I saw, he saw. The story I told him became his way of seeing.

Joseph Conrad put it better, “My task…is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.”

How do writers see? They see the way dogs smell, with special cognitive equipment and that dogged enthusiasm. Ever try to move an alert pup off an enticing scent?

And what do writers see? They see experience, and they see it through the lenses of life, language and literature.

I am thinking of writing a book titled “What Writers See” that will try to shine a light on the pupil of that third eye so that you can examine the optic nerves of writers to see what they see. It will not be just about famous writers or dead writers. It will also be about you. Think of the pages of this future book as an inexhaustible bunch of carrots.  Eat them. They will improve your vision.

Here’s another analogy. When I was about 10 years old, I almost ordered from an ad in a comic book a pair of “X-ray glasses.” Over the years, I’ve borrowed the power of those glasses as a metaphor. I wear them when I’m sitting in an airport lounge, watching a couple arguing over their crying baby. I wear them when I am looking around for just the right word. I wear them when I am trying to decipher the imagery in a particularly powerful poem.

This book begins, as do most of mine, with a brainstorming list — an almost random compilation of potential elements and chapter titles as they occur to me. I am going to ask you to build upon them.

Here are some of the things I think writers see in life, language and literature:

1. They see the world as a storehouse of story ideas.
2. They see moral ambiguity — even in a doorknob.
3. They see — that is know — with all their senses.
4. They see themselves and others as characters in a narrative called life.
5. They see endings, even before they write a beginning.
6. They see their own work as a serial narrative, one long work with countless chapters.
7. They see stories as worlds into which they, and the readers, can escape.
8. They see texts as experiments in which they can swim.
9. They see all surfaces, and all media platforms, as potential canvasses for their work.
10. They see their own voice and the voices of other writers.
11. They see every complication as a potential resolution, and every resolution as a potential complication.
12. They see visions — and revisions.
13. They see the English language as their playground.
14.  They see themselves as members of a tribe.
15.  They see themselves as kings — and impostors.
16.  They see themselves as possessing X-ray vision.
17. They see themselves as addicted to narrative — in all its forms.
18. They see themselves as God’s privileged giver of names.
19. They have a third-eye for detail — of both place and character.
20. They see themselves as members of a larger community of readers and writers.
21. They see their eccentricities as essential to their craft.
22.  They see themselves as time travelers.
23. They see readers as imaginary friends.
24. They see life — yours and theirs — as a story with chapters.
25. They see themselves as struggling — even when they are not — for a noble purpose.
26. They see themselves as musicians.
27. They see movies — everywhere.
28. They see themselves as members of a special species, homo narrans, the creatures who tells stories.
29. They see beyond the horizon of their talent and experience.
30. They see reading and writing as profoundly dangerous.
31. They see the walls talking to them.
32. They see the narrow alternate route, the back streets and detours.
33. They see their work in print: days, months, years before it happens.
34. They see dreams of stories yet unwritten.
35. They see the poetry in common speech.
36. They see a universe of choices in a semicolon.
37. They see the big in the small, and the small in the big.
38. They see the empty in the full, and the full in the empty.
39. They see the secret meaning in the casual gesture.
40. They see the language flaw in their text message.
41. They see coffee.
42. They see the story that smells bad.
43. They see sex.
44. They see violence.
45. They see archetypes.
46. They see the insides of myths.
47. They see dead people.
48. They see the water, the land, the sky.
49. They see the rocks in your head — and theirs.
50. They see the Beatles at their reunion concert.

Think of each of these elements as a potential chapter title in “What Writers See.” Some of you will recognize the structural parallels with my four previous books published by Little, Brown. But I also want to emphasize the differences. We are moving up the ladder of abstraction from “how writers work” to “what writers see.” It’s more about the life of the writer, the profound ways of knowing that develop over time with the acquisition and exercise of craft.

To say it will be more abstract does not mean that it will not be practical or fun to read; you can count on me for the fun part. But I will be reaching for something more here, an aspiration for a higher calling as a writer.

Now it’s your turn to help. You’ve seen my early thoughts and my list of potential chapters. Please riff on these, or suggest ways of seeing that I have overlooked.  Friends and followers on social networks have offered their help. Now I’m asking you to complete the following sentence (with as many examples as you would like): “Writers see…….”

You can share your thoughts in the comments section of this story.

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  • Trần Hữu Quang

    Writers see the timestream as their personal, perfect fishing ground. (Epilogue: My paper handed me a new job too good to pass up, and I’ve stayed.:)


  • http://www.facebook.com/richdad.tx Anh Tuan

    writers see one the other world in real life . it is beautiful , peace and anything good .. :)

  • AmyR

    The list you have is so reaffirming – and funny – and true. To add –
    writers see roads where others see “Dead End” signs; writers see
    metaphors where others see random acts; writers see words as touches and
    caresses, deeply fulfilling a basic need; writers see a strip tease
    taking place where others only see an ordinary conversation. Writers see
    a pinata full of questions hanging above everyday life.

  • Dao Anh Tuan

    “If you had a third eye, what could you see?” I see Iphone 6 cheaper than ever


  • janine robinson

    First, I have to preface my feedback with my absolute adoration of your books on writing. I read many books that claimed to teach writing, and most gave general advice that only frustrated me. “Be clear. Find your voice. Tell a story. Etc.” But they never told me how, exactly. Your books had tools and techniques that actually worked, and helped me improve my writing. I now believe writing can be learned and taught. That said, I can give you my honest reaction to your idea about writing about how writers see: I could care less. I can tell how they see by reading what they write. I don’t have any interest reading about why they are so amazing that they can do this, or even how or why they do it. I didn’t even get to the end of your post on this topic. So sorry to be so negative. I’m just one person, and I’m often wrong. Good luck!

  • Lee G

    And mic drop . . .

  • Joe

    Writers see one reader, listener, viewer while keeping the thousands of others like them in their perceptual field of view.

    Writers see the big picture in atomic terms.

    Writers see their journalistic worlds in unusual ways that make just as much sense as conventional thought.

  • http://twitter.com/NotebkBlogairy TheNotebookBlogairy

    12. “Writers see visions and revisions.” – Never understood the full truth of this until this, my 3rd full length novel. I am on my 3rd re-read and it is a painful(!!!) process. However, more and more of my story is coming out in the revision. The revising process is helping my vision clarify itself. So, through the pain I am seeing the rainbow. RT @notebkblogairy – http://notebookblogairy.blogspot.com/2013/05/editing-at-3-months-in.html

    ~ R. Campbell

  • skippress

    Writers see a random bunch of knucklehead thoughts in an article and the smart ones decline to contribute to your proposed book because they have better things to do.