Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ideas: How to See Something Special

I once heard a rabbi, speaking to a mixed audience, say, "You know the story of the Burning Bush and how Moses turned aside to see it. I like to believe that Moses wasn't the first to see the burning bush, but that he was the first to turn aside." (See Exodus 3)

While taking care not to conflate writers and prophets, one of the fundamental ways writers can get ideas is by being willing to turn aside and see something--even something incredibly ordinary--in a new light or with new eyes.

Something happens to us as we morph from children into adults: we move from a world of concrete and specific things into a world of abstractions and classes. The process is innocent enough. When a child points at the feathered creature hopping across the lawn and asks, "What is that?", they want to know about the specific one in front of them. But we answer, "Oh, that's a robin." In doing so we give the child a word for a class of birds, of which the specific one they see is only a representative. In time, we stop seeing that one one bird and instead see a robin.

What, then is the technique for seeing something special where others don't?

Like the child, ask, "What is that one? How did that one come to be here and now?"

Human language is powerful because of its abstractions, generalizations, and indirections. Most people use that power for their own purposes without realizing the degree to which they are, in turn, controlled or at least constrained by it. Writers, who regularly wrestle words to make meaning, are among the best equipped to get out from under the oppression of the abstractions and turn aside, like Moses, to "see this great sight."

I won't promise you a revelation, if you turn aside, but you're likely to see something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

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