[Photo of giant octopus courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium website. You’ll see why if you keep reading.]
I spent much of yesterday at one of my favorite places: An aquarium. When I’m in places like that — by which I mean, places where people gather for the sole purpose of having a visual “experience” (e.g. zoos, aquariums, museums, etc), I often spend as much time watching people as I do any other species.
Yesterday, I noticed a number of things of interest about our species (some of them pretty sad, to be honest), but I want to talk about one in particular: the act of videotaping and photographing every second of every experience. And I want to talk about it specifically in exploration of what it means to be a creative person.
There are a lot of reasons we explore our world via technology, and I’m not against any of them. I like technology. Probably more than I should (if that’s even possible). I walked into the aquarium with both my camera phone and a regular camera. And you know what? I never pulled them out of my bag. I’d like to say that was because I was in a higher state of mind and had an epiphany or something exciting like that, but in truth, it was something else entirely:
- I was shocked and slightly outraged at the number of people who elbowed in front of each other to take photos, people who stood in front of crowded tanks to take a million photos of creatures, and who used their flashes in places where signs clearly said things like “Do not flash the octopus.” I had my viewing experience disrupted so many times by someone’s flash bouncing off the glass into my face or someone’s child standing in front of a tank yelling “Take another one of me, mama!” that I balked at the very idea of pulling my camera out.
- I could see those photos they were taking (since they had stepped in front of me), and they mostly sucked. Not to knock anyone’s photo skills, but there is a reason that people spend a lot of money on good equipment and good lighting and waterproof everything to get into the water with creatures and shoot photos. All those beautiful photos you can see everywhere on the net? All those gorgeous YouTube videos? Your photos are NOT going to look like that. My photos were not going to look like that either.
- I watched people become so distant from the experience of being there, of seeing the things they came to see, because they were so focused on looking at their own photos, and showing their photos to others, that I found myself wanting to go the exact opposite way.
So I left my cameras in my bag (I think I took three photos the whole time I was there — which is why this post is devoid of photos. Oops.) and I did what I really had come to do: observe the animals (humans included).
And I was reminded of a very valuable writer lesson that I sometimes forget: In order to write about the world around you, you must first know the world around you. This means that you must pay attention, you must think about things, you must make connections in your brain on various layers. It is okay to record the experience for later (I have a horrible memory, and I know that I have already forgotten lots of details from my experience yesterday), but if you’re only recording, is it possible that you’re missing all of the important nuances of experience that don’t make it to the screen?
We’re all viewers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Viewing things is part of our human experience, and we’re trained from an early age to be viewers.
But it seems to me that creative people should also be observers. By which I mean people who watch the world with intention, to make connections, to remember details, to gain a better understanding of what’s happening around us. To stop and be still. To take away all the distractions that keep us from the true experience.
Think of it this way: Everything you put between yourself and the world creates distance. In an aquarium, there is the glass of the tank. Distance one. Then there is the camera or phone between you. Distance two. There is your lack of attention. Distance three. Already, you’re becoming so removed from the experience of seeing the creatures that you could have stayed at home and watched a YouTube video. What you’re gaining instead is an experience of recording an experience. More distance.
If your job as a writer (and some would argue that this is not your job as a writer, but it is certainly one of them in my book) is to bring the reader as close as possible to an experience, then it stands to reason that you as the writer need to be as close as possible. You’re already creating one level of distance in telling the story. Another level in the medium it’s printed on. Another level in the difference between your understanding of the world and your reader’s understanding of the world. Even if you started from the position of being inside the water with an octopus, by the time you tell the story, you’ve already put four or five barriers between you and your reader. Now imagine starting the story of the octopus from standing seven feet away and watching it through your video camera. Distance. Distance. Distance.
Bring your reader in. Show them what it felt like to stand in a crowd of pushing, shoving people with their cameras to the glass. Tell them that the air smelled of salted fries and sea water. How the random child next to you put her hand on your leg with a shiver when the hammerhead shark swam by against the glass. How you looked down to see another shark, grey and large, swooping along the bottom, scattering the silver-flashing fish that schooled below. That moment when you realized that far up above, at the top of the tank, in some place you couldn’t see, a person was holding a piece of meat on a stick, wiggling it along at fish-pace. And the way the shark swims forward. Tentative. Predatory. Sleekly, dangerously grey. Other fish moving out of the way, side-slipping toward the edges of the tank. Movement out of the corner of your eye. A turtle, giant and prehistoric, slowly swimming right at you. His big unblinking eye even with yours. How you stand there, the crowd going silent because you’re going back in time, to the beginning of eternity, to the moment that giant turtle cracked his soft shell and touched the ocean for the first time.
Sight. Smell. Touch. Taste. Sound. The five senses. Plus that intangible sixth sense that I try to cultivate as a writer, that sense of being connected and of making connections, of understanding our place in the world and bringing my readers to that place, and saying, “Look. See. Live.”
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.