Seeing or Looking?
Fans of the James Cameron sci-fi movie Avatar will recognize the Na’avi greeting, “I see you.” As Norm explains to Jake, the phrase means more than hello/aloha or I’m looking at you, it means I know you – I recognize you. Even more, to me, that greeting implies a certain trust, very much unlike our overuse of “How are you?” and our pat answer of “Fine,” which is usually a lie of varying degrees.
As one of our five recognized human senses, sight is often considered of first importance. Vision commands many other aspects of our lives; to lose it can be devastating. But to those who have never experienced it, other senses gain strength, not necessarily to compensate but to add depth to awareness. Why are such things as Balance or Perception not separately recognized human senses (they are to some)? Because they are governed by other organs that command those senses; the nervous system carries signals to the brain, where the physical experience is sifted, judged, and assigned a value. I experience a sense of imbalance when my eyes are closed, but my sense of balance is controlled by the workings of my inner ear. I can perceive physical experiences like odor or dampness but I cannot understand either without smell, taste, or touch.
So why am I separating Sight from Looking? Seeing is a surface sense, like the words of the Na’avi greeting. Being able to look, to go beyond the first impression of sight, is as different as an X-ray from a visual exam; as different as a victim of prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces) from a victim of Treacher Collins Syndrome (those born without a face).
Just because a creature can see does not mean it can recognize and then understand or put into perspective what is seen.
How do I use the concept of “look” in my writing? Successfully adding a layer of deep examination turns a written paragraph into an artistic rendering. A line becomes two-dimensional when we add other lines to create a shape; the resulting shape becomes three-dimensional when we add a sense of depth with distance or shading. We live in a three-dimensional world and relate best to multi-dimensional experiences. How can you add these layers? By practicing the art of noticing. It is an art that we can all learn, but at our own pace. I’ve long admired such characters as the great sleuths – Sherlock Holmes in particular. What makes him special? He’s smart, of course, but he's incapable of taking in a scene with his eyes; he looks at it with an inner perception that notices what is different, out of place, unique, exceptional. If you’ve never done this exercise, I encourage you to practice with a friend. (There is a boxed family game using this concept I saw recently in a store.) Have someone pick up ten random objects, small enough to fit in a shoebox or such container. Test yourself by spending short periods of time, ranging from 10 – 30 – 60 second increments of time studying the objects and then listing them. First, trying to remember as many as you can, then recounting what you recall about each of them: shape, color, texture, size, relationship to the others.
You and your writing group can practice a similar exercise by observing a public scene, such as when you go out for lunch or coffee and watch the people around you, what they consume; the decoration of the room, timing of the wait staff, and so forth. Practice looking for certain numbers of surface details first: each of you might pick twenty details of the outing to commit to memory for discussion later. Why did you notice those particular items? Gradually you’ll find yourself noticing richer layers of perception every time you look around. A department store shopping cart, or buggy, will not longer simply be a conveyance, but a wielder of the means to transform a dull wardrobe into something fantastic, change a plain meal into gourmet, or supply the necessary tools to fix a maddening leak; or possibly tell its own story by its wobbly wheel or bent wires or broken handle…and so forth, leading the reader to conjecture with you not only about the piece of a larger scene, but about the story behind it.