Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On nature and nurturing your inner Gladys Kravitz

by Karen Harrington

One of my former professors suggested that writing should be like taking a mirror with you as you walk down the road. That your words should reflect what you see. You should get out of the way and let the words do their job.

For a long time, this advice was a good guide for me. It was, after all, a short story class made up of young college students. We hadn’t lived a lot of life yet. Imagining oneself carrying a mirror down the road helped ensure that we weren’t just figuratively walking – but looking. He wanted to make sure that we didn’t just write “The man had a tattoo.” He wanted us to write “The man had a Superman tattoo.”

But now that I’ve put 20 odd years between that time and now, I’ve taken his advice and added to it. When I read something that really resonates, it’s usually because all five senses are at play on the page.

Writer E. L. Doctorow states it this way:

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."

Lovely butterfly 
It’s not just taking that mirror down the road and writing what it what it reflects. That is reporting. The trick is capturing the feeling of rain, too.

This is why taking long walks outside informs my writing. It’s not only the much needed exercise of the body, but the experience with nature. How do things smell? How do things sound? How can there be so many different shades of green? And butterflies? Don't get me started. I photographed this one (pictured above) on one of my daughter's recent field trips.

But it's not always the sensations of the outdoors that inspires. It's the people we share this world with. 

Here’s a confession: I am something of a Gladys Kravitz when it comes to looking at people’s houses. Unlike Gladys, I do not go looking in people's windows. (If you are of an age where you don't know Gladys Kravitz, go here. I realize I'm dating myself.) 

Where and how people live sparks so many character ideas. When I walk, I get all kinds of ideas about who might live in the house with the black shutters. Do they realize one of them is cracked? Why so many seasonal lawn ornaments over there? Do they put these out there for grandkids? And why, for the love of nature, would you display a potted plant on top of a dead tree stump in the middle of your front yard? Did a mad housewife put it up there because her hubby refuses to take the stump out and this is her rebellion? (This stump caused me so much curiosity that I did, in fact, have to write a story about the people who lived there. Made up, of course.) 

And then, in my dad's neighborhood, there is this vehicle. (Yes, I have my camera with me most of the time. You just never know.) Wouldn't I like to know these neighbors? My inner Gladys Kravitz sort of explodes with questions about who would buy The Mystery Machine and did they ever pick someone up for a date in this van? I mean, Zoinks!


Maybe these aren't nature walks in the truest sense, but they never cease to inspire thoughts of human nature.

I’m still learning how to write the difference between rain and the sensation of being rained upon. I suppose the only true way to do this is to keep taking walks. 

Even in the rain.


Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology, a novel about nature and nurture. 
Visit her blog 


Jessica McCann said...

What a fun and enlightening post. Thanks for sharing. I, too, tend to examine the neighborhood as I walk (usually with my dogs), curious about the who, what and why. You might also enjoy a wonderful blog called "What I Saw" at's also on Twitter @CrytzerFry). Good stuff there about her observations in nature and how they inspire and support her writing.

Jessica McCann
Author of the novel All Different Kinds of Free

Karen Harrington said...

Jessica -

Thanks for pointing me to that blog. I'll check it out. Thanks for your comments, too.

Susan Cushman said...

Loved this, Karen. I also take my camera (or sometimes my cell phone which has a camera) with me on walks in our neighborhood, to capture a new peony in bloom, a funky kid on a skateboard, or an interesting lawn ornament:-) We live in a historic district, so the architecture is pretty interesting. But we're also fairly close to downtown, so the "street people" are also fascinating. Great post! (I'll be following you with my "City Girl" post tomorrow:-)

Natalia Sylvester said...

I have an inner Gladys Kravitz, too (just have to say how much I love Bewitched. The reruns were the only thing I'd watch before I started school, and it initially caught my eye because of the animated credits).

When I'm walking my dog around my apartment, I have to resist looking too long into people's homes if they've left the curtains open. But I'm so intrigued by the window into their lives, paired with the fact that there's no volume, so it leaves all the "filling in the blanks" to me.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! It does seem observation is a hallmark of a writer. I read an essay by Patrick Madden the other day, and he said he'll never run out of things to write about, because he's always seeing things (that others overlook) and that sparks new ideas.

I'm a bit of a Kravitz, I confess, but I look through windows from the street, not up close. My weakness has always been eavesdropping. Perhaps that's why I became a reporter!


Hilary Hyland said...

Loved the Doctorow quote. And I can hear Gladys yelling "Abner!" now.

Heather Mattern said...

This was such a fun and encouraging post! Thank you, I feel inspired!

Book Publishing said...

Inspiring and very much informative post.
Thank you Karen to share this post here.