Don’t work hard, work soft

I love the term “soft eyes”. I first came across it in The Wire (“Refugees”, Episode 4, Season 4) and it has stayed with me since.

Det. Kima Greggs and her soft eyes, as seen in “The Wire”. Image:

In that episode, new arrival to the Homicide department Detective Kima Greggs is sent to her first crime scene. An experienced colleague advises her to use “soft eyes” – that is, to take a wide overview of the scene and let intuition and the subconscious come into play in order to spot things and make connections.

Getting bogged down or stuck in details is a problem shared not just by writers, or even creative types in general, but by anyone with a creative aspect to their work.

I am currently in the early stages of writing one of the stories in my work-in-progress short story collection. I had been floundering around for a few days, trying to work out the finer details of certain scenes.

Then I remembered about soft eyes. I zoomed out in my mind’s eye, brought the scenes into soft focus, and let my mind do its thing for a while.

Mentally, this process (or some variant of it) is what happens when you put on your soft eyes. Physically, you can help soft eyes happen if you sit back, close or half-close your eyes, do some slow breathing or shoulder rolls – anything that you find relaxing.

Linda Formichelli discussed a similar idea the other day on her blog The Renegade Writer. In a post titled “Are you pushing away ideas – and work – by trying too hard?”, Linda’s main points are:

  • Focus on the input, not the output: it’s easy to get caught up in producing output, but you need to feed your creativity by absorbing other material.
  • Go wide, not deep: this is the idea I mentioned above of not drilling narrowly into details at the expense of the bigger picture. As Linda says, this is intended to be an easy, relaxed process: “Just take [ideas] in and let your subconscious do the work.”
  • Be playful: anyone who is familiar with the techniques of Mindfulness will know this as a creativity-enhancing technique called “habit releasers”. Brush your teeth with the other hand, or go to the cinema and see a movie at random rather than planning and booking ahead. The idea is to get your mind “unstuck”.

These techniques also tie in with some good advice I have heard from Nuala Ní Chonchúir in her short story workshops: don’t get tied up too much with plot. Instead, just get writing, and plot will emerge. This to me is a related idea, as it too focuses on relaxing and trusting the subconscious.

Try it! And after you do, post a comment below. I’d love to hear how “soft eyes” works for you.

Posted on November 23, 2012, in Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I love the term “soft eyes”. It’s a concept I learned when I was riding hunter/jumpers and my instructor would tell me to use my soft eyes — in other words, don’t stare so hard at the jump in front of your horse’s nose that you miss the rest of the course. I use it a lot to remind myself to soften my focus, try not to lock onto one little point so that I miss the rest. Super post.


  2. I like the concept of ‘soft eyes’. Because I don’t tend to plot, but invent-as-I-go, I sometimes have to pull away from the work and mull over it in different ways. In dreams, on a walk, or by distancing myself from it with time. I think it’s the same thing.
    Nice post, Orla.


  3. Thanks for that. If it’s good enough for The Wire, it’s good enough for me.


Don't wait - leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: