The 12 Inch Exercise

On almost all of my travel trips, we spend one morning of writing class doing an exercise in deep observation.

Paying attention is one the most important qualities a writer can foster, so this morning I read my students a story about deep observation in a scientific setting, and then sent them out, dressed in jackets and rain coats (to sit on—the ground was wet from last night’s thunder and lightning storm) and told them to sit for half an hour in silence, studying 12 square inches of something in nature that wasn’t moving (like a river), but a 12 inch square that initially felt static, like nothing was happening: maybe a stone wall, a patch of grass, a tree, some flowers. The instructions: half an hour of silence and deep observation of what was happening in that square foot.

After thirty minutes, I went out with my gong and found my flock of writers sitting in the most gorgeous places, their layers now stripped off in the warmth of late morning, and I told them that finally they could write about what they had seen and experienced sitting there.

That’s what they’re doing right now and in 15 more minutes, they’ll come in for a debrief and to we’ll hear some of their writings. But I loved walking around finding them deep in concentration. It gives me such pleasure to see writers at work.

Here’s what some of the students had to say in our debrief after this exercise:

“I was surprised how much I loved it. I could use more of that.”

“It was lovely. I could have written for many more minutes, hours.”

“I kept being surprised. I’d think, ‘Oh, I’m done looking at this’ and then something new would emerge.”

It was so nice to slow down and observe. At first, I got into hearing. There was so much to hear.”

“I had so much fun with my spot, I could have spent the rest of my life doing it.”

“I went through a whole meditation retreat in an hour.”

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