Thursday, May 9, 2013

An Observation and Description Exercise

A Little Background
I've done this exercise with Tai a couple of times as a meditiation exercise (also see the end of this post) and as a thinking exercise (about which more in a later post), both orally, and a couple of times as a journal entry. The journal exercise went like this: Write down every thing you see. Note colors, numbers, etc. With some noodging, the results look like this:

I see a computer in front of me.
I see a brown table.
I see a crimson chair.
I see a bumpy red wall.
I see a white window sill.
I see a red plum tree.
I see a green tree with long leaves.
I see a chair to the left of me.
I see a 4 by 4 carpet.
I see a leather chair with cat scratch marks.
I see a placemat with the alphabet on it.
I see a door. A white door.
I see 4 tomato plants.

What I Did
Today I tried again, this time calling it unimaginitively “description practice”. I was going to find a photograph for him to describe, but we've been doing so much with the photos. I wanted something “in real life,” as Kenzo likes to say. So I picked this vase of roses:

If at First You Don't Succeed, or Before Writing
Let's just practice, I said. We'll talk about it first. Tell me what you see—every detail. He was not happy about this, and heaving a grumpy sigh, he said, “They're white.”

“White? Just white?”

“Yes, of course. Duh.”

Not a good start.

He could not or would not do better than “white.” I bit my tongue and didn't push it (slowly getting better at this). “Okay. What else?”

Trying, or Focusing on What Works
Then it got a little better:

“The stems look like bullrushes. Or...cattails. The leaves are like in Jack and the Beanstalk.” I loved the Jack and the Beanstalk allusion, though it didn't really give me a clear picture. Instead, I said, “Ooh, like they're a ladder, right? And those stems do look like cattails, sticking up out of the water like that.”

Because we look for what works.

Trying Again, or Re-focusing on the Purpose of the Exercise
“Okay, now pick one rose and describe it so that I'll know which one you're talking about.” I was worried he would say, “But that's ridiculous. They're all the same!” He didn't. Maybe because he was feeling good about his similes.

This produced a different style of imagery--less figurative language, but more detail:

"The petals are pearly white...the thing under the flower is green, and it's curled up. Um, the stem is long, and it has, like, a yellow dead spot on one side, like it's been scraped. There are small leaves in a group of three."

It was easy for me to identify the rose he described because I watched him observing it. But that didn't matter, as the point was for him to focus and describe accurately.

Trying Again in Writing, or The Power of Choice
“Let's try with another rose,” I said, and Tai nodded, smiling. “This time, it will be in writing.” His face fell.

But he came up with a compromise. “Can I get a flower from outside?”

The chance to go outside, climb a wall, and run back with something he had chosen? It made a difference. This is what he produced:
  • There are five light purple petals, each with a glossy sheen.
  • A small white stem with five minescule branches spears out of the yellow pollen.
  • The stem is angled right.
I thought it was a great start. He thought he was finished. With a little coaxing, he decided to take the flower apart, and came up with two more sentences:
  • In the center is a blood red core with five dark purple almost black root of the petals.
  • It smells like perfume from roses.
Not bad at all. I love "spears" and the phrases "each with a glossy sheen" (he was proud of that one, too) and “blood red core”. I know that had all of this in him in September, but he could not (or would not) produce it on demand. I think the photographs with the skeleton sentences helped.

So, in short:

  1. Practice with "easy" lists of whatever is around you.
  2. Practice orally with more difficult observations--something requiring a higher level of detail or focus.
  3. Look for and praise what works.
  4. Try again with something harder--describe one out of several similar things so that someone else can tell which one is being described. This can be done orally or in writing. I think it would be great as a game.
  5. And again. 
  6. As always, no need to correct spelling, or even grammar. The point is to hone observation and description--the skills of seeing and capturing details accurately.

About the meditation exercise: I wouldn't actually call it meditation per se—just a way of calming him down and getting him “here, now”: look at the tree trunk outside your room and tell me every single little thing you see. Count the leaves.

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