TAoN No. 84: Photographer Wesley Verhoeve on how to notice more in the everyday. Plus a new icebreaker, and more.
When the pandemic forced a wave of lockdowns last year, photographer Wesley Verhoeve had to change his plans, just as many of us did. Instead of traveling to various big cities around the world, he’d be staying put in a Vancouver suburb. This was not the most obviously photogenic place in the world, but Verhoeve accepted that state of affairs as a challenge.
“I walked around my small neighborhood for 123 consecutive days,” he later wrote. “I practiced slowing down and paying attention so I could see better. Suddenly my world, which had initially felt so small, was revealed to be a massive universe with tiny stories everywhere.”
The result was a photo book called Notice, which Verhoeve reached out to tell me about earlier this year. It’s an inspirational example of how considered attention can be a creative spark — even in the most seemingly challenging context. You can check out the book here.
I asked Verhoeve if he might share a prompt to inspire TAoN readers, perhaps drawing on his experience creating Notice. He replied:
“Challenge yourself to take a second look at that which is familiar. Take a walk you've taken many times before. Perhaps the walk you take when you pick up your kid from school or your morning coffee run. This time, walk more slowly than you usually do, at times looking up and down rather than only right in front of your feet.
“Walk for the walk, not for the destination. Focus on noticing ‘normal’ things you usually rush right by. The way the sun hits the flowers to cast an interesting shadow, or trees reflecting in windows. Discover the beauty all around, the tiny stories everywhere. Document them. Your most familiar little world will surprise you left and right.”
Naturally I love this. Plus, it’s a very TAoN sentiment. There’s a prompt in the book to “spot something new every day” that’s specifically aimed at bringing fresh discovery to a too-familiar route (whether walked or biked or driven). It also calls to mind a recent-ish post from TAoN hero Austin Kleon, usefully addressing the challenge of surprising yourself — “You can’t really will surprise, you can only put yourself in situations where you have a better chance of being surprised” — but underscoring how important it is to make the effort: Surprise is an ennabler of seeing, as he put it.
By chance there was an amazing comment on a TAoN (subscriber) post yesterday from reader Kathy B., who positioned exploring the same territory repeatedly as a form of “constraint,” and described the many ways she enlivens her recurring visits to a nearby state park:
“I bring along a little notepad and make notes of seasonal changes, draw crude drawings of plants, birds and other creatures I see to help me when researching later as I try to identify and understand what I am seeing.”
In short, she describes “building a personal almanac” of this place. Fantastic!
Undertakings like that, and projects like Verhoeve’s, strike me as great motivators: Even before the pandemic, most of us knew the feeling of growing so familiar with certain places and routes that we barely even registered them anymore. So maybe it’s time to take another look.
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.
This week’s icebreaker is from reader Dan C.:
"When were you sure a bad outcome would be your ruin, but in fact it turned out to your benefit? Was it because you turned lemons into lemonade, or was it due to luck/grace/karma?"
Dan added that there’s a connection to “noticing” here. He writes: “When something ‘bad’ happens: Stop, Take a Breath, Notice. See if you can turn disasters into opportunity. Coppola famously didn't let ‘bad weather’ screw up his shooting schedule; in fact, he would lean into / run toward bad weather and extend shooting to include it. He called bad weather ‘the cheapest special effects you'll ever have.’”
A great point about noticing opportunities in seeming disaster. Thank you Dan!
As usual, I’m still working through the disorganized backlog of icebreaker submissions. In fact this is another really old one, submitted about two years ago. I’m getting more organized, I swear.
But as always, I want more:
Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to email@example.com
This Thursday’s post for paid subscribers, following a bit from last week’s subscriber post, will address self-observation — including some brief nods at rationalism and metacognition. (How’s that for a highfalutin tease?)
Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, the new series sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.
Also in the works either for the weekend or (more likely) next week: a quickfire roundup of prompts inspired by Adam J. Kurtz, John Bielenberg, and more. Hoping to offer super-concise roundups like this for subscribers from time to time.
In Other News
Very excited to say that I’ll be in conversation with Austin Kleon this Thursday on Instagram live, talking about The Art of Noticing book and about Austin’s Literati book club. Should be very fun! More here.
In a nice pairing with today’s main item, my vanity Google alert pointed me toward a cool mention of TAoN in a South Dakota Public Radio piece on artist Duy Hoàng. His practice involves arriving in a new place with very little, and collecting “bits of ephemera into not only art but something akin to home.” Jumping off from that, and mentioning the book, reporter Lori Walsh suggests:
“Try this: Explore a place you think you know really well, maybe someplace you've even come to consider boring. Go to that place and search for something new — a new sound maybe. Can you use that new object or experience to create art, even if that art isn't something you might discover in a gallery?
Responding to last week’s item on “re-visiting,” writer/adventurer Alastair Humphries says: “I am in my 3rd year of climbing a tree every month to help me notice the seasons and notice the changes in my own life.” Check it here. Wow!
“What’s the weirdest question someone’s ever asked you?” Should that question itself be an icebreaker? (Thx Brett B.!)
A roundup of free breathing-exercise apps, by Rubi McGrory.
Peter Gorman, mentioned earlier here, has a cool recent project that he describes as “very lockdown-inspired.” It’s called Kaleidoscope Brain: 100 Visualizations of Moby-Dick — “made of maps, diagrams, and data visualizations all based on passages from the book.” He’s made it available as a digital book, downloadable for free. It’s here.
A Brief Compendium of Vintage Cocktail Recipe Books. Nice stuff.
I am really, truly, deeply saddened to learn of the death of Bennie Pete. Long live the Hot 8.
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments!
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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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