The other day I was standing in line for the DMV. Like most people, I was reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Yes, it was paper. Yes, people stared.
As I read, I was struck by his education. Not his intelligence – his lack of reading.
Da Vinci himself knew he would receive criticism from his peers for not having read many books. But, always ready with wit, he had a ready reply: “What they call intelligence, I call memory.”
In other words, Da Vinci was saying, intelligence is not the ability to remember the ideas other people have planted in your head. Intelligence, rather, it the ability to think for your self – to draw conclusions directly from reality, rather than the second-hand opinions of others.
We see this clearly in his art.
Da Vinci foregoing many classical principles, observed reality directly. Unlike other artists, he wasn’t content merely to copy the forms of others. He desired to copy the form of nature itself. So, while other men were reading books, Da Vinci was out examining cadavers, analyzing botany and playing with shadowing techniques.
And that’s what made him original.
The Stealing Tree
After I went to the DMV, I stopped at Barnes and Noble, because, as a rule, if you are within a five-mile radius of books, and have the time, you should go to that place. I picked up a copy of Austn Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist”. The first principle I read (“steal like an artist”) was about climbing the family tree of ideas – first, find an author you like. Then, read the person they read. Then read the person they read. And go back until you’ve reached the top of the family tree.
And of course, the top of the family tree is reality.
As I thought about this principle of looking at reality directly, rather than second hand, I thought of other great thinkers who operated by the same principle. Jonathan Edwards was one of them. In his brief biography, he is noted to have read only so that he could think – he never simply digested others’ ideas. Instead, he would write pages of notes in response to everything he read.
He did the same thing with scripture.
And if you think about it – on one level, Da Vinci looked directly into reality by looking at nature. And in a true sense, when we look directly at scripture, we’re looking at the Word the Logos: reality incarnate.
And that ought to make us the most insightful people in the world, don’t you think?
The Power of Observation
As I thought about Da Vinci, Edwards, Kleon and the life of an artist, a helpful word came to mind: “Artists are observers”. Not second-hand observers. Real observers.
And if we want to create something meaningful, we’ll need to use the art of observation better than most.
So, as I sat at the DMV, waiting to exchange a license plate, I began to observe: What were the conversations happening around me? How would I describe the person sitting in front of me? How do I feel when I first look at the guy who walked into the room? What is going on in their heads?
I jotted some of these things down, and thought: “Now, this is what good writers do.” Because suddenly in my lap I had a dozen great and realistic dialogues, characters profiles and poignant descriptions.
And they had been there the whole time. I just hadn’t observed them.
Trading Imitation for Originality
I also thought about the second part of my discovery: the idea that the Bible is the reality behind the reality, to put it in Platonic terms. I had skipped my time reading scripture that day – funny how I found time to do some reading that entertained me, but didn’t challenge me – and I thought, “In trying to read for originality, I skipped originality for imitation.”
And as I thought about that, I considered the myriad ways I needed to begin observing. All thanks to Leonardo Da Vinci. Here are a few:
1. Observe the mundane.
Even when you think there’s nothing to observe. Observe anyway. I remember doing this as a science experiment as a kid – my Mom told me to sit outside for thirty minutes, and record everything I saw. Everything I heard.
It was torturous at first, but by the time she called me in, I was scribbling away frantically to finish.
There is a lot going on in the mundane – writers observe it. They write it. They capture it, in their work. So – when all seems at ease – you need to be on the hunt.
2. Observe conversation.
Listening to and jotting down real-life conversations might just be the most helpful thing you can do to improve the realism of your characters. Listen to the broken, dialectic language of others, and try to capture it.
Listen to what people really talk about. Listen to what is on their minds. When you sit down with a friend, give them the attention of an artist – observe them. Ask them questions. See how they react.
It’s a win-win situation.
3. Observe scripture.
This, obviously, was one of my takeaways from the day. And I don’t mean read scripture without community, or without guidance. But while you’re reading – think about it. Let it be as radical as it is. Let it transform you.
Most importantly: ask questions of it. Write out your reflections on it. Meditate on it, mull it over in your mind until truth springs out like newly hatched chicks.
Let the weight of reality sink in.
4. Observe appearances.
I’m actually very weak at this. I don’t notice things.
So, the DMV was an interesting experience for me. I had to identify people’s particular features and ask myself: “How would I put that into words?” It was a formidable challenge, but one in which I walked away having an arsenal of vivid phrases.
5. Observe body language.
Body language is my favorite way to communicate emotion, in writing. I might be stealing too much from the movie genre, here, and I don’t know if everyone likes it.
But I do. I really prefer someone say, “He swallowed, and his eyes darted” than, “He was nervous.” The first preserves the idea of reader intelligence, I think. It gives us a picture, and lets us interpret. The second treats me like a child, who can’t see reality for myself.
Nor does it help me believe he is, in fact, nervous. Give me the proof, will you? Show me the body language.
6. Observe the natural world.
The great poet King David was a master at this. He looked around, and saw theology in everything – a high rock, a shepherd near a river, mountains, streams – it all said to him, “God”. As one sage has put it, “Everything is everything.” There is a metaphor for life in just about every crevice.
Observing the natural world is one way to make those connections.
7. Observe myself.
This is another weakness of mine, but I believe it is ABSOLUTELY KEY to what differentiates good writing from great writing.
For example, the other day I was watching a Netflix film about the first America Fighter Pilots. There was the cocky country bumpkin, the entitled Daddy’s boy, the token black guy, the religious zealot, etc. And as intensely interested as I was in the movie’s subject, I just couldn’t. get. into. it. AT all.
Why? Because deep down, I knew it wasn’t honest. The writer had shared with us a tin-man story: all mechanics, no heart. He hadn’t been honest about himself. He, surely, wasn’t like any of the people on that screen. He kept himself at a distance.
For writers, this is key: writing is about honesty. You can have terrible grammar, a flawed style and a plotline full of holes (ehem, see William Faulkner, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett) but if you are brutally, brutally honest, people will be drawn to your writing like a magnet.
I find journaling to be of great help in this.
8. Observe the observations of others.
Finally, do observe others’ observations. Do read the classics. Do see the world through the lenses of other book-writers.
But just don’t make it your primary planting point. See the world along with others – do steal from them, really, it’s okay.
But also climb your way up to the top, until you see reality through scripture and life. Don’t work on dialogue by hammering away, do it by going to a coffee-shop with a friend, and listening. Listening carefully. Listening like an artist.
Then hit the books with a plumb-line in hand.