My first travel-writing assignment was to cover the grand reopening of an oceanfront golf resort in Naples, Fla., where I spent a long weekend with a group of writers from around the country. We toured the grounds and visited the suites. We went on an excursion to the Everglades. We had happy hour on the beach with huge mounds of shrimp and fruity cocktails.
Throughout the weekend I did exactly what I’d been told to do. I gathered a little historical information and noted the current amenities. I shopped at the boutiques, played golf, walked the beach and ate at local restaurants. I recorded the thread count of the sheets, and the number and types of chocolates on the pillows.
I went home, wrote my article and sent it to my editor. This being my first travel article, I was anxious for a reply. I waited and waited until, months later, I was called by a new editor. Instead of the article I’d submitted, he suggested, what if I wrote about the orchids?
The orchids. The orchids in the lobby. The orchids I’d sidestepped every time I left the hotel. The hundreds of orchids of every variety and color, grouped in sections to reflect the seasons. That weekend, the hotel had also hosted an orchid convention. The massive public display was the keynote speaker.
The orchids had been a fantasy of color and a marvel of blossoms. They had been a sight to behold. Now, if that description smacks of conjecture, it’s because of this: I don’t really remember the orchids. How is that possible? How could I have missed the largest single grouping of orchids in the nation?
I was young, uninterested in plants and gardens. I was hungry, looking for the shrimp. I was tired—the Everglades are huge! I was feverish—too much sun. I was legally blind—I’d lost a contact lens in the swamp. I was drunk—free booze, right?
The truth is, I hadn’t been told to look at the orchids. Consider this: About a decade ago, when a research study told participants to watch a video and count the number of times a basketball was passed back and forth, half of the viewers had no recollection of a person in a gorilla suit strolling out and beating its chest on the court. My situation was the same: I saw what I was told to see, and nothing else. It’s called selective attention, and it kills a writer’s vision. Predetermination can stifle originality, interpretations and surprises. It’s like following the yellow brick road and never looking up to see Oz.
The orchid assignment devolved into embarrassment and anxiety. A Google report was not what the editor wanted. By now, I’ve managed to block out the painful details of what came next, but suffice it to say that in the end we called it a wash. For months I couldn’t even see an orchid without cringing.
But, still, what a lesson for a developing writer. The humbling experience showed me the danger of tunnel vision. Now I try to stay alert to all the odd or interesting details around me. Doing so brings texture to my life and makes me a better writer. At a basketball game I see three little boys in the nosebleed seats having a perfect moment of freedom, friends and slices of greasy pizza. At a holiday dinner I notice an elderly woman across the room delighted by what has to be her first Christmas corsage. I write stories about all of them.
Careful observation can become second nature, as mechanical as it is creative, like that last sweep of a hotel room to make sure you’re not leaving anything behind.
As a writer, leave nothing behind.
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