Seeing our planet–the entire misty blue sphere–from outer space changes one’s perspective. Astronauts who’ve experienced this say it’s like a mystical experience. It changed them.
This big shift in consciousness is called The Overview Effect. The term was coined by astronaut Frank White. He wrote that he was profoundly changed from seeing the earth as a fragile ball of life hanging in the void and nourished by a thin atmosphere. From space, the conflicts that divide people seemed unimportant. International borders are a fiction. White was overcome by feelings that we humans should unite and cooperate. We are all interconnected.
I heard similar stories from the cosmonauts I met years ago in Star City, Russia, while reporting a magazine feature story about Space Station Mir. The men and women who lived on that spacecraft were orbiting earth, so they didn’t see the full “pale blue dot.” But they, too, were changed. They spoke with conviction and tears. One cosmonaut, whom I interviewed over vodka shots in his office, suggested that I, too, could experience The Overview Effect if I kept a photo of earth near my desk and looked at it often. He handed me a business card with a photo of earth taken from the moon. This gift now sits on my writing desk. Since that reporting trip, I’ve heard other astronauts say that meditating while holding a mental image of the earth can foster The Overview Effect, too.
As writers, we need to be able to shift our consciousness. We must sometimes write “up close” about the muck of our lives. For up-close writing, draw on your senses and use detailed descriptions to dissect, pull apart, and explain your life. But then shift out of up-close writing and write with distance. Think of a film director calling for a wider-angled shot. For this distance writing, draw on abstract language. Instead of describing how a person mistreated you, write about life’s patterns. Write about how we all share certain habits, behaviors, and blind spots. Write about the things we hold in common, including how we all sometimes act from habits, hang ups, and obsessions. We mess up. Our faults, as well as our gifts, make us human.
As you write from this bigger perspective, you might surprise yourself. You might discover your compassion for people who caused your suffering. You might glimpse the hidden forces that caused a person to treat you poorly. No, don’t give that person a pass on their behavior. Call them out in your writing. And then shift into a bigger perspective. Your writing will be stronger.
When I coach memoirists, I invite them to write with as much “agency” as possible. In other words, I advise them to take responsibility for their lives. Your readers will relish learning how you found your freedom. You might change a reader’s life.
A final point: you can foster The Overview Effect with a regular meditation practice. Meditation cultivates a bigger view. Over time, meditating will help you see your life with more clarity. With time, you’ll see for yourself that we are not merely our thoughts and emotions. We are much more.
It’s possible to improve your writing and your life at the same time.
Brad Wetzler is the author of the new memoir "Into the Soul of the World: My Journey to Healing" (Hachette, 2023) and "Real Mosquitoes Don't Eat Meat" (W.W. Norton, 2005). He is a memoir writing coach, podcaster, and yoga teacher. Brad began his career as an editor and adventure-travel writer. He served as a senior editor at Outside magazine and was a contributing editor at Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and George magazines. Brad has written hundreds of articles and essays on wide-ranging topics. He writes books and articles and hosts a podcast about adventure healing, emotional wellness, and faith and spirituality. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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