A few years ago I took a photo of a Southern Red Trillium, a beautiful and somewhat unusual flower native to this part of Tennessee. The lighting and composition of the photo worked out perfectly — the light was bright enough to bring out the color, but not so direct as to be harsh. The background was free of distracting shapes or colors and blurred beautifully. I’ve sold framed copies of the photo, and I’ve had it published in local magazines.
The thing is, the photo was taken on my old camera. It looks fine in relatively small format, but if I were to enlarge the photo too much, the limitations of the equipment I used would become obvious. The photo would look grainy, pixilated. So in the last two years, since I bought my new camera, I’ve been trying to replicate the photo, so that I can print larger versions. And I haven’t been able to do it. I simply can’t find a Red Trillium in as good lighting or with as clear background. This morning I was out looking for the flower again — same thing. I couldn’t find it. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t find Trillium at all. I just couldn’t reproduce that one photo.
But this morning, after my initial frustration at not finding a flower just like the other one, I realized that the flowers I’d found, while not the same, were still strikingly beautiful. I had been searching rather than observing. I’d been tunnel-visioned. Realizing this, I started snapping away, and wound up with several wonderful pictures, including the one to the right. It’s not as dramatic or as simple as the original photo, but in many ways I like this newer image more. I like the curve of the stem, the almost shy positioning of the flower, the blurring of the leaf behind the bloom.
As soon as I overcame my tunnel vision and began to see, I found a photograph I love. It’s the not one I was after, but that’s okay.
Tunnel-vision has, at times, affected my writing as much as it has my photography, and it has done so in any number of ways. Preconceptions of what I want to do with a story or a character, or even with a world I’ve created or a magic system I’ve developed, have stifled my creativity and turned my writing into a slog. Only when I broaden my perspective, overcoming my tunnel vision, do the words start to flow again. Let me give you a few examples.
Sometimes tunnel-vision manifests itself from the very beginning of a project. I’ll have an idea for a novel — a plot line, a character, an element of my worldbuilding — and I will assume that the story is going to develop a certain way. I’ll begin the outlining and background work with that version of the book in mind. Before long, though, I realize that the project isn’t coming together the way I thought it would. I know there’s a story there, that the initial idea was a good one. But I can’t seem to make it work. More often than not, I realize that I’ve limited my vision of the project too much. I’ve latched on to a single approach that doesn’t allow that original notion to grow the way it should. Usually I can overcome the problem by going back to the beginning and starting once more with the original idea, this time following it in a different direction, or perhaps several directions.
At other times, the tunnel vision doesn’t strike until I’m well into a book. I’ll have made up my mind about how a narrative thread is going to develop or how a character is going to behave. As I write the story or book, I’ll find that the writing is becoming more and more of a struggle, until I’m spending almost all of my time staring at the screen, or out my window, instead of actually typing. Chances are that I’m trying to maintain too tight a grip on my narrative and my characters, and they’re starting to rebel. Yes, there are dangers in giving in too much to the whims and desires of the characters in my story. I’ve written before about allowing my characters to lead me down narrative cul-de-sacs. That certainly can happen. But there’s also danger in trying too hard to control them. At least there is for me. The people I write about are as close to real as imaginary people can be. They have their own agendas, and to a certain degree I need to respect their independence. That doesn’t mean I cede all control to them, but neither should I allow them to be constrained by my creative tunnel vision.
Finally, in the last six months I have rewritten two books from start to finish. Both books came out all right the first time through, but didn’t work entirely, either artistically or commercially. So I had to tear them apart and put them together again in new ways. And in order to do this, I had to reconceive. Talk about overcoming tunnel vision. It was difficult; at times painful. And yet, I think it also was enormously valuable to me as a writer. There is no single way to write any story. Creativity, I believe, is about exploring possibilities. Yes, it’s also about making choices. But I’m trying to teach myself not to be limited by the choices I make, to recognize that our choices should never become straitjackets.
Tunnel vision can work on many levels. The examples I’ve given here are pretty extreme. Sometimes the issues involved can be far smaller — a circumstance in a character’s past, a small sub-plot, a descriptive detail. But changing even such small things can free up our writing, and help us get past problems. The point is not to be constrained by the assumptions we bring to our work. Be flexible, be aware of the preconceived notions informing your creative decisions, and be prepared to rethink them if necessary.
Here’s a little exercise that might help with this: Find a picture in a newspaper or magazine that inspires you, and write a story about it. And then start over with the same picture and write a completely different story. Use new characters, new circumstances, make it as different as you can. Then do it again. Or, better yet, go back to one of the first two stories, and using the same characters and the same photo, come up with a different plotline. Force yourself to rethink the creative process. Making yourself creatively nimble is the best way to keep tunnel vision from limiting your work.
Have you ever faced tunnel vision in your writing? How did you overcome it?David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net