by Carrie Conner
Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way all over again.
– Eudora Welty
My 7-year-old niece is writing her first book. She plays at it, scribbling away in her notebook for hours at a time. Julia doesn’t worry about impressing anyone, whether or not her work will sell or even if she’s doing it “right.” She just dives in, losing herself in the pure joy of creating a story.
Children have the gift of noticing. They see or experience something for the first time and are filled with awe and wonder. As adults, we speak of this as mindfulness or being present, but usually we have too much to do to remember to be “in the moment.” We lose the ability to notice.
In her book Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1994), Anne Lamott says she believes the goal of writers is to help others have the sense of seeing ordinary things in fresh, new ways – ways that surprise us and make us become present to the moment – the way a child sees his world. On page 100 of Bird by Bird, Lamott writes:
Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!” And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, ”Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!”
Kids never worry about not knowing. They ask why. They ask how. They ask what. We adults believe we already know, or think we should know, so we stop asking questions. But what do we know exactly? Do we honestly understand what causes redwood trees to grow so tall, why an airplane can fly, or how come Uncle Benny has such a big nose?
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has a pretty good idea why we stop questioning our world, and suggests ways to help us re-cultivate our curiosity. She’s been studying mindfulness for more than three decades. On December 1, 2014, Langer was interviewed on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show” about her most recent book, The Art of Noticing.
“Part of the problem at least is that we’re taught in schools and by our parents to seek facts. Facts are situated, but they’re given to us as if they’re absolute,” Langer said during the interview. “As soon as you know something absolutely, there’s no reason to pay any attention to it.”
According to Langer, the solution is so simple it almost defies belief.
Once we recognize that we don’t know – and nobody knows, so it’s okay not knowing – then we try to find out. We notice. As we notice, it shows us that we didn’t know the thing we thought we knew as well as we thought we did, which leads our attention back to it. This simple noticing is the key to everything as far as I’m concerned.
Langer ran a study in 1981 where eight men, ranging in age from late 70s to early 80s, were placed in a time-controlled environment for five days. After watching movies from an earlier time in their lives, being surrounded only by its icons and memorabilia, the subjects developed improved vision, hearing, memory, strength and even looked younger.
Now, open your memory to a time in your childhood. Use all your senses to recall the experience, then write or rewrite a work of fiction, nonfiction or poetry from the point of view of a child.
It may take a little practice to remember to forget what you think you know now. As Pablo Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
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An Invitation from VoiceCatcher
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A friend once asked Carrie Conner why she writes. “Because I have to,” she said. “You mean like publish or perish?” he asked. “No,” she said, “It’s more like … breathing.” Carrie has spent 20 years as a staff and features journalist and freelance copywriter for a variety of publications and companies. One day, while interviewing an emerging novelist about her new book release, she realized she was done writing about other people’s accomplishments. She’s currently putting together a yet-untitled collection of short stories and a screenplay.