An Exercise in Observing

Monday, February 19, 2018

Yesterday we had an unusually warm day for February, so although I had a zillion chores to do I headed outside for a two-mile walk. I turned on a podcast and began the familiar route, and on this day like so many others, I found that there were many things to observe. Every time I head outdoors for my exercise, it also turns into an exercise that I could use in my own writing.

For example:

Even over my earbuds I could hear the sound of bullfrogs that reside in the water right off the neighborhood greenway. Their croaking brings back childhood memories of visiting my grandparents’ home in the countryside where there wasn’t much else to hear besides the chirping crickets and birds and call of the frogs in a nearby pond. That is the sound I would blissfully fall asleep to after a long day of exploring the property and visiting the farm animals.

Passing by one house I could smell something delicious being cooked on an outdoor grill—I could imagine a family gathering on the outdoor patio with plates of teriyaki burgers and good conversation—and maybe some ice cream for dessert. It made me miss my own family who lives across the country.

Another household was doing what I should have been doing, laundry. I could tell by the fragrant smell of laundry detergent and fabric softener that caught my attention as I walked by. For some reason that warm and fresh smell envelops me in comfort—it’s a sense memory I’ve had for as long as I can remember—although I don’t know exactly when it started. Whenever I walk by a house and smell this I get tears in my eyes.

On the greenway I saw scores of people doing the same thing I was doing—trying to take advantage of the beautiful weather. I ran into a family biking and had to step off the trail because two older women in the group (helmets and all) were a bit wobbly on their bikes. It looked like they hadn’t been bicycling in awhile and were fearful as they slowly rode past me with apprehensive smiles. A few minutes later I met two young parents carefully guiding their preschooler on a bike with training wheels—it was such a dichotomy from the two women I had just encountered. The little boy was all smiles and in no hurry—even though a teenager on a scooter (and not one of those motorized ones) was approaching behind them. I smiled as I recognized the teen as my daughter who wasn’t glued to her phone and was truly happy to be out exercising (she hates bikes but loves that scooter).

The walk wouldn’t have been complete without seeing a dog or two. I nodded at the older man walking his dog while he puffed on his pipe. I swear his dog, an adorable Corgi, smiled at me as I walked by.

It’s amazing what types of ideas and scenes can come to you while you’re doing something as mundane as taking a walk or sitting in a coffee shop. I came home with ideas for essays (the connection between family and food as I thought about my grandmother in Texas who still makes the best tortillas I’ve ever eaten), a YA character whose sensory processing disorder makes her fearful of riding a bike, although she is athletic in other ways, the heart-healthy benefits of owning a dog, etc.

Have you done a similar exercise in observing recently? What ideas did you take away from it?

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor whose short story, “The Polaroid,” received first place honors in the Suspense/Thriller category of the 2017 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Visit her website at


Angela Mackintosh said...

Ah, Renee, this makes me long to walk on my trail again. I observe every time I'm out there, and I usually see familiar faces, so I stop and talk to people. I know the life stories of several people on the trail and why they frequent it. I've noticed there's always a reason with the regulars--divorce, cancer, health issues--and many are entrepreneurs who can make their own hours. The trails where I live are more remote, so there aren't houses along them, which gives you real immersion in nature. I enjoy watching the coyotes, lizards, bunnies, birds, hawks, and the occasional rattlesnake sunning himself. The view from a peak, the colors of the sunset, the flowers in the spring, the green rolling hills, and remnants of structures from a century ago. It's inspiring to translate those details into writing and art, and breaking a sweat is a real high. :)

Margo Dill said...

Thanks for sharing your specific examples of how walking made you think of those story and esssy ideas. Very helpful

Mary Horner said...

Nothing beats a good walk or hike to get those creative juices flowing!

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