I was in high school when I realized that being observant was not just a talent or trait – that to be observant, you had to know what to observe.
I made this discovery because I had decided that, if I were going to write poetry, I needed to educate myself about traditional verse. Armed with a rhyming dictionary with a good prologue, I set out to learn about metric feet: iambs, trochees, anapests, and dactyls, along with outliers like spondees. Through repetition, reading, and practice sonnets, I learned to recognize each foot in a way that I never had naturally (although I had heard of them long ago). I learned that what you could consider an accented syllable varied with the sounds around it, and how some syllables could count as accented or unaccented depending on how you pronounced them. I learned, too, that free verse was not an absence of meter, but an absence of consistent meter (a subtlety that escapes three-quarters of modern poets, and how the whole idea of metric feet did and didn’t fit the way that English was used.
For a while, I became so obsessive that I went around mentally scanning everything that I and people around me were saying. I don’t think anyone noticed the inevitable slowness that crept into my speech, but I was relieved when I finally shook off the obsession. I soon found myself publishing my first poems, and left with a means of perception that most people lacked.
Much the same thing happened in grad school when I realized that, if I were going to teach composition to students, I needed to know more about essay structure. Accordingly, I summarized the sections of essays I admired from people like George Orwell or Gloria Steinhem, making notes of the tactics used. What were the different ways of starting an essay? Of concluding? How should points be arranged? When should opposing views be mentioned, and how should they be handled?
A few years later, I did the same with fiction, both short stories and fiction. Then, as I started exploring graphic design, I did the same with font selection and layout – so thoroughly that I still sometimes walk down a commercial street critiquing the signs. Usually, there’s a lot to criticize, since, to say the least, our culture is not exactly graphically literate.
Each of these circumstances left me with a different way of seeing from most people. Or, rather, I perceived the same things as everyone else, but I understood what details mattered. I could understand, too, how well what I perceived fit together. Instead of a generalized reaction, I could go into detail (usually more than anyone else wanted to know) about exactly what created my reaction.
Some people might argue that I have lost my spontaneous reaction as a result. They might say, for instance, than I can no longer watch a badly written movie, because I can anticipate what is going to happen and, sometimes, when the script writer has become especially lazy, even what the characters are going to say and what will happen to them.
To some extent, that claim might be true. However, my self-taught expertise can tell me to avoid the movie, which I consider an advantage. Or, depending on my mood, I might watch it anyway with a two-track mind, one responding as an uncritical consumer, and one running in parallel observing what doesn’t work and why.
Far from losing anything, I believe that I have gained from acquiring expert vision of selected fields. Because of my efforts, I not only respond, but can articulate why I respond the way I do. In looking for greater knowledge of what I was experience, I have also gained knowledge of both myself and others – and that’s never a fact that I’ll regret.