Monday, 11 February 2013

Tourist's eyes

When my aunt visited from Italy last year she was enthralled by the uncustomary sights, scents and sounds of our city. Wherever we took her she’d take in all the sensory data and exclaim, ‘Ma, guarda!’ Look at that! Everything to her was new and fresh. I was amused by her enthusiastic reactions over everything, from her awe at kerbside garbage collection (in her town residents carry their garbage to strategically placed collective bins) to her wonder at the Australian landscape.  

As we talked and she explained her perceptions, I realised she had opened my eyes to appreciating the things I took for granted: wide open parks, greenery, the architecture; most of all the sense of personal space. I hadn’t looked at my home city like that for some time, but I was still intrigued by her response. ‘But, you live in Puglia, one of the most beautiful regions in Italy; all those ancient Roman roads, the architecture; the churches!’

‘Bah,’ she said. ‘It’s just old concrete.’

Her perception of her hometown was tempered, blunted by familiarity, as indeed mine had been in my own hometown. We had both been looking at the same thing but one with the jaded view of a long time dweller, the other with the fresh eyes of a tourist.

Cut to present day me, coming to the completion of the first draft of a novel that I’ve been working on for too many years to count. Despite my limitations, I’m determined to finish it one word, one paragraph or one page at a time. It may still take years because I've struggle with tying together the loose ends. The fine tuning to the shape and flow the novel needs eludes me. It feels overwhelming.  The novel and I have a long partnership and like many long relationships, occasionally we fall out; we have words (or lack of them) and we don’t communicate well. How had I arrived at this point?  I realised that I was too close. I’d been holding the work so near my eyes that the words had become indistinct.

It occurred to me that the notion of ‘tourist’s eyes’ could be applied to other areas, such as my writing. I could use this concept as a way to make sense of the story world from another’s perspective. To a certain extent, my writing buddies help me with this perspective by giving me feedback on the work. They look at each page I write with the eyes of those new to an area, having to take in the information to get their bearings—in this case their bearings in the story. A bit like my aunt appreciating what I had taken for granted and pointing out the areas in which she was confused about how things are done and where they are going. I needed to take a step back to look at my novel in a way I haven’t before.

So I opened my eyes and took a new ‘tour’ of my writing. Like the familiar streets I drive through or walk in each day, I'd ceased to see some of the finer details. One of the first things I noticed was that there was so much more to the characters and the plot that I hadn’t committed to paper. Even though I walk around with their lives filling my head, I've forgotten to let the reader in on these. I experienced a bit of culture shock on that tour. The world of the novel was foreign and I was disoriented. If I was lost, how would a reader feel? These discoveries were a starting point.  

It’s not easy work being a tourist. The down side is that it can be tiring and frustrating; the up side being the experience of a new world. That’s what all writers want to ultimately offer their readership—a world that they can escape to and enjoy.

Gradually, I've started to clean up my characters’ world; I’m tweaking the ‘road maps’ and cutting out the bits that don’t serve the story. I might have to take many trips as a tourist but that’s okay. And, luckily for me, there’s a kind of kerbside garbage collection service on my PC via the delete button. Ma guarda!

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