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The privilege of observation

Last week I attended Adelaide Writers Week for two days and happened to hear a wonderful talk by Nigerian born, American writer and photographer Teju Cole. He described a terrifying experience where he woke up one morning to find he had lost sight in one eye. After a series of tests by numerous specialists, he was told he had a medical condition which in layman's terms was called "temporary blind spot" (I don't remember the scientific name unfortunately). There was nothing to be done, he was told, except wait for the problem to fix itself. Which it did.

Not surprisingly Cole told the tale as a somewhat defining moment in his life. One of his books is titled "Blind Spot" and this medical experience had clearly made him deeply consider what it was to be able to see the world. As he put it, "noticing is what I do for a living". Cole claimed that "we never see what we think we see", and it is those contradictions, those blind spots, as it were, which he explores in his work.

I often talk to writing students about the importance of observation. I encourage them to take out their earphones and engage with the people and places around them. Often, they look at me as if I am an anachronism because they see escape, particularly into cyberspace, as a standard way of living. I try to point out how privileged they are to be able to see, not only in comparison to those who may have never had sight, but also those who have neither the time nor the energy to engage with the minutiae around them.

As I travel through the days with small children, I understand that my way of seeing has completely altered from days when I was alone and a full-time artist. The road has become a series of hazards to protect them from, not a fast barrelled vista I can weave illegally through. My hand more often reaches for a pen to jot down a shopping list, not the lines to describe the smell of the jasmine vine I've just rushed past. Whilst I encourage my students to always keep a notebook with them, sometimes I find myself without anything in my handbag besides discarded hair-ties and horrifyingly crumbled tissues. But the nature of paying close attention may shift and change in different phases of your life and it is this which reassures me that, despite the current whirl around me, there will be times of sitting and listening and absorbing again.

Like the mantra "write every day", I am deeply suspicious of trying to define exactly what every writer needs to do to define themselves as a "proper" writer. Only I do think there must be some kind of desire to push past the surface level of our interactions, to dig under the surface, to watch closely and make the most of our ability to observe.

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