Thursday, May 2, 2013

On Being an Observer

I have been an observer as long as I can remember. As a young kid in elementary school, I fought my temperament, did the whole "fitting in" thing, but even at recess, I was always more comfortable on the sidelines, watching first, then engaging.

I remember the first time I saw Harriet the Spy. Does anyone else remember this quintessential 90s Nickelodeon movie? While I had no desire to be a spy in that sense (I would make an abysmal detective), I loved Harriet and her notebook, how she carried it everywhere, scribbled things down. And while I'm sure the contents of her childhood notebook and my own would be drastically different, I found a kindred spirit in her character.

I carried around notebooks. I looked out the windows when we were driving on the freeway and imagined the stories of the people in the cars next to us. I watched people at restaurants, walking through the mall, tried to figure out how they were related, would go home and write down their descriptions, create narratives, write down what I'd heard, what I'd seen, what I'd imagined. I spent hours creating stories, most of them unfinished, writing dialogue, practicing practicing practicing.

I'm reminded of a quote by Anne Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird:

"I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on  my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down the funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship's rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down."

I've lost a lot of this as I've grown up. Partly because an adult carrying around notebooks and scribbling everywhere she goes isn't as charming as a child doing it. But that's not the whole story. I've lost my penchant for observation. In most social settings, I'm still content on the sidelines. But now, I'm distracted, nervous, self-conscious. Out of boredom, out of fear of what others think of me because I'm sitting alone, I reach for my iPhone. Every time.

And this isn't a post about making myself, or you, feel guilty for looking at your phone too much. Not at all. It's about writing, about how essential it is to be an observer in order to be a writer, especially a writer of fiction (and oh, I've felt the fiction writing itch overwhelming me lately. It's a good, good feeling).

This is a resolution I'm sure many of us have made, at some point or another, for varying reasons. Put down the phone. For me, it's because there are stories practically beating at my ribcage within me, waiting to be told. There is so much I want to write, but I know I cannot write it all if I am not an expert observer of humanity. All of my favorite writers, they are masters at dialogue, at capturing the nuance of conversation, describing the idiosyncrasies that make us human, individual. I think of Steinbeck's Samuel Hamilton, who draws pictures of beautiful things, like trees and rivers, on the corners of his blueprints. Or Toni Morrison's Pilate, who is always chewing on something, a stick or a piece of string or the seed from a fruit eaten hours before. Gatsby and his "old sport," Holden Caulfield's "phony."

These small details, they matter—and I don't want to miss them. They originate in the real, living world around me, are invigorated by imagination, characters are born.

So next time I have a long wait for my coffee at Starbucks, instead of pulling out my phone, I will open my eyes. I will look outward, not down. I'll take in the humanity surrounding me, complicated and rich and just rife with story. I'll listen to the voices, follow the narrative like a golden thread, and maybe, just maybe, pull out a notebook and scribble down what I see, what I hear, what I imagine is happening beneath the surface.

Just don't ask to read my notebooks. Chances are you won't understand a word.

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