Writing ‘en plein air’

“Aldred, what are those foreign words you have dropped into the title?” I hear you cry. “Are you trying to be sophisticated?”

‘En plein air’ is French and means in the open air. It was used to describe the trend among painters in the second half of the nineteenth century for painting out of doors rather than in their studios. The impressionists were particularly keen on ‘en plein air’ because they wanted to catch the varied effects of light on the landscape. Many celebrated paintings were painted ‘en plein air’ as well as several less famous ones such as ‘soggy canvas after a sudden downpour’ and ‘brief sketch of a field with a charging bull including original blood stains’.

I find writing ‘en plein air’ stimulating and it provides me with a welcome break from my desk. My favorite outdoor writing spots are beaches and parks but I’ve also done this at bus stops, railway stations and outside shopping malls.

I like to take a walk before I sit down and write, paying attention to the things that I pass and using all my senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. So for example, if I was walking through a strand of gum trees on a hot day, I would notice the color and shading of the bark and I would feel its smooth, warm touch beneath my hands. I would hear the raucous laugh of a kookaburra and the buzzing of flies, soft, loud then soft again, as they shot past my ears. I’d smell the tang of eucalyptus in the air, and when I licked my lips I’d taste salty sweat mixed in with the chemical flavor of my sunscreen.

I find the act of paying attention to things on my walk relaxing because my mind forgets to worry about everything else. It’s a little like writing in that respect. One word of caution: try not to stare too hard at passersby as this can freak them out.

Once I’ve sat down, I pause for a minute before I start writing. This is partly because I need to catch my breath after the walk, but it also gives me a chance to absorb my surroundings. I don’t wait too long though. It’s a bit like jumping into a cold pool: the longer you hesitate, the harder it gets.

I like to begin by writing about what is immediately around me, using each of my senses in turn. I’ll then describe my walk and write about anything else that comes into my mind. If I dry up, I’ll go back to describing the sensations around me. I keep my pen moving even if it means writing “this bench is really uncomfortable and my bum is sore”.

I never judge the quality of the pieces that I’ve written out of doors, but I do find that they have helped my writing in a number of ways:

•    They act as a record of a place that is in some ways more concrete than a photograph because I’ve used all my senses rather than just my sight.

•    They provide me with a well of images that I can draw on in my subsequent writing.

•    They make me think about how images can create mood in my writing. For example at the beach, a giddy, grinning Labrador dashing in and out of the waves makes me smile while a gull pecking at the cigarette butts scattered around a bench makes me sad.

The above are all valuable benefits but for me the best reason for writing ‘en plein air’ is that I enjoy it. The act of writing is its own reward and that is what ‘Writing for Fun’ is all about.

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