Monday, May 28, 2012

The Forest or the Tree? And How it Affects your Writing.

by Julia Buckley

I once had the pleasure of hearing noted educator and psychologist JoAnn Deak speak about learning, especially the different ways that boys and girls learn.  In the process of her very interesting lecture, she noted that one is generally a Tree person or a Forest person.  (You know the old expression, "You can't see the forest for the trees?").  Deak suggested that Tree people saw the little details within the forest of life.  Tree learners focused on the minutiae and therefore could potentially obsess over them.  But tree learners also saw valuable details that others just didn't see.

Forest people, on the other hand, were "big picture" people.  They tended to think of big concepts and often genuinely didn't even notice small issues.  At one point in her life she was a school administrator, and she often had to work with parents and children.  She pointed out that it could be very difficult to work out issues between, say, a Tree mother and a Forest son.  The mother went crazy over all the details her son refused to acknowledge, and the son would be frustrated by the way his mother saw the world, which seemed too focused on random details.

I was thinking of this analogy the other day as I struggled over the writing of a paragraph.  I think that writers, too, might evaluate themselves as either Tree or Forest artists.  I think I might be a blend of the two, but I would have to say that I veer toward Forest.  For example, I have never wanted to lose myself in a long description.  In general I feel that no matter what I am describing, one or two sentences will cover it nicely.  And yet I enjoy losing myself in the very long descriptions written by other writers: beautiful, evocative descriptions of setting, or long, wordy, wonderful discussions of a character's appearance.  Fun to read, but never something I'm tempted to write.  The more I write, the more concise I find my writing becomes.  It's not really a conscious choice that I make; it's just the way I write.

If you buy into the Tree/Forest analogy--that is, that you are either a detail person or a big-picture person--which sort are you?  If you're a writer, do you see the influence of this on your writing?

And, last but not least, Happy Memorial Day!  Special good wishes to all veterans and families of veterans on this important day.


Sheila Connolly said...

Can one be both? At different stages?

In group situations I tend to be a forest person--except when I ask the group, "what is your overall plan here?" they usually throw things at me. I think I like to know the boundaries of the forest before I start planting trees in it.

Julia Buckley said...

Great point, Sheila! I think the Forest people are really important, and that Tree people need them.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think a crime fiction writer, in particular, has to be both at different stages. Our stories must have an overall design that makes sense when viewed in its entirety -- but those little details are the essential elements in the building of that design.

Julia Buckley said...

Interesting. This ends up being similar to the responses for the pessimist/optimist blog. Most people are a bit of both.

In terms of learning, Deak suggested that there really are clear frameworks through which people see the world, and we tend to lean toward one or the other.