What’s Your O.Q.?
Everyone’s heard of I.Q., or intelligence quotient, which is a score based on a test that a person can take to measure her intelligence. And then there’s E.Q., the emotional quotient, which refers to a person’s ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. There’s a test you can take for that, too. I’d like to introduce the O.Q., for observational quotient. Unfortunately, there’s no test to measure your O.Q, since I just made up the idea now. At this point, you have to self-assess. But when it comes to writing fiction, considering whether your O.Q is genius-level or remedial is a good start.
That’s because capturing essential details in a story is one of the skills that separates weak writers from strong ones. And if you do not have the ability to notice your own world, it will be difficult to conjure up the right details in fiction.
Literature makes us better noticers of life.
So, let me ask you (and myself!), what do you know of your neighborhood? What trees grow there? What birds live there? What does it smell like? What do the people look like? And when you travel to other towns or cities or countries, do you take note of the details? Is your nose in your computer? Is your phone constantly pressed against the side of your head? These are questions you need to seriously consider. Don’t just brush them off. Because honestly, these are just the beginning questions, the ones for the remedial observer, really. Knowing the world around you is fundamental to your life and your writing, and especially important for acquiring essential details, because only when you have a baseline can you really begin to notice the details that are unique and that will set your writing apart from the others.
I consider myself a pretty good observer, but was humbled at a conference I attended a couple of years ago. The audience was shown the video below and asked to pay very careful attention to the instructions and count how many times the people in the video bounced the ball. It was an eye-opener for me because it demonstrated how easy it was to miss even the most obvious details. What did that mean for those of a more subtle nature?
If you didn’t fail this test, congrats. You’re already an excellent observer. Keep up the good work. If you failed, as I did. It may be time reconsider your presence in the world. It might be time to read this: 12 Ways to Become More Conscious. But you can also just start small. Go for a walk today and put your cellphone on mute. While you walk, notice five different trees or flowers. Look up. (I did this yesterday and saw that someone had painted a large eye high on the bark of a tree that’s right outside my house, a tree I have walked past hundreds of times.) Notice five different smells. Pick up five unusual characteristics from people you see on the street. Take note of five different sounds you hear right now. Tomorrow at work, when your boss talks to you, purposely try to find something unique about his/her appearance that you haven’t noticed before. When you ride the bus or subway, look up and take note of the people around you. Engage your senses. Read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. Be actively aware in your observations.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes,
Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.
Do you strongly agree? Agree? Disagree? Strongly Disagree?
Photo: vestman / Flickr Creative Commons