“Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.”
In his Paris Review interview, David McCullough talks about how important seeing is to the writer and historian, and how much his training in drawing and painting has been of great benefit to him in his work. “Drawing is learning to see and so is writing.”
He has a motto tacked above his desk: LOOK AT YOUR FISH.
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
He tells that story in all of his writing classes, and then emphasizes that looking more closely helps you discover new things in old or ordinary material that other people have not:
The chances of finding a new piece [of the puzzle] are fairly remote—though I’ve never written a book where I didn’t find something new—but it’s more likely you see something that’s been around a long time that others haven’t seen. Sometimes it derives from your own nature, your own interests. More often, it’s just that nobody bothered to look closely enough.
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