Observation, the Opening to Wonder
I’m currently learning to drive. Just yesterday I took my theory test and in the build-up to it, all the road and highway signs which I’ve been oblivious to, suddenly catch my eye constantly. Without even thinking about it, my mind registers the red hazard signs, the blue parking signs, the yellow school crossing signs and immediately rattles off the significance of each one. Likewise, as a passenger, I’m now way more aware of other drivers, pedestrians, and the politics of roundabouts. Before driving lessons, my only concern as a passenger in a car was whether or not I could get my croaky voice to sound like Beyoncé as I blasted music to sing along to.
I realised how much I must miss out on because of a lack of observation. Wonder, as a noun, is this sensation of awe – this feeling of the lightness of a lantern traversing the sky, as discovery descends on us like confetti. Wonder, as a verb, however, is this sense of probing, questioning, and leaning into uncertainty. I often crave the former without making space for the latter. I stop asking myself, those around me, and the world questions: I stop being inquisitive. Yet I expect diversions from my mundane. And whether I realise it or not, this over-familiarity seeps into my creative process too.
So, what on earth do hazard signs, highway codes and various definitions of wonder have to do with writing and storytelling? Here’s what I’m beginning to understand about the power of observation and why I’m finding it essential to stewarding a creative life:
Observation invites you to lay aside assumption and embrace curiosity
Questions are everything. I’ve found that the more I pay close attention to my surroundings, the more I begin to wonder why things are the way they are…
Why is it that inner emotions manifest themselves in physical tears? Why is it that London buses are red? Why is birdsong loudest in the morning? In our era of information overload, ignorance is perceived as inexcusable, but what is easy to forget is that ignorance is the birthplace of curiosity. I recently listened to an interview with an illusionist and magician. He made the point that now when he performs tricks, as opposed to his father’s and grandfather’s day, the audience immediately have their phones out, googling and trying to figure out how he does it. Then they walk triumphantly towards him at the end presenting their various theories…Rather than just being lost in wonder. This isn’t to say we should remain in ignorance. I am passionate about education – my final year dissertation was about alternative routes to knowledge – but are we forfeiting the process of learning for the end goal of knowing? If I’m not asking myself new questions when I write or create, how can I expect to find new answers?
Observation creates connection and complexity
When I was a kid, my parents used to joke that I would make a great lawyer because of all the questions I would ask. I turned every observation into a form of interrogation as I would mine their minds for gems of wisdom and understanding. When we notice things around us that are unfamiliar or provocative and use these observations to start a conversation, we connect with others as we ask them for their perspective. We let them add colour and hue to the way we see. And suddenly things which we thought would have simple answers become so much more: they come to life through the storytelling of others.
Observation lets imagination fill in the gaps
Observing takes time and attention – it stills and quietens us enough to tune into imagining and speculating. And in the moments and places where there are no immediate answers, or the answers provided don’t seem to do justice to the questions we ask, we can allow imagination to come alongside us, and flood our hearts and minds with possibility.
A well-known maxim is that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. But for me, possibility is the mother of invention: what could be rather than what is.
– Peace and love, Fopé