The Last Word
It is one of the most valuable exercises for a writer, to sit and observe and then describe what has been seen. What’s even better is to make up stories to embellish that observation. All characters born on the page are created with the genetic material of outside observation. People caught in the act of being people, recreated on the page. Most writers are compelled to do this. We could be called professional noticers, because we see the minute details of interactions, body language, expression and voice and through the alchemy of imagination, take what we observe and apply it to our work. It’s not the same as taking a picture, capturing the exact detail and replicating it. What a writer does is take in an impression and reconstitute it into a useable new form. Riding the T, watching the Asian man keeping to himself by closing his eyes might someday show up as a character who wishes she wasn’t alone in a strange place, so she closes her eyes and imagines she’s in familiar surroundings.
There is nothing I like better than to sit and people watch. That isn’t to say I’m indolent, not at all. I’m not sitting still, I’m busily creating sentences in my head to describe the life I see around me. In "Cameo Lake,” Cleo Grayson, my protagonist, is a novelist. She’s in the grocery store and bumps into the man who will, as the book progresses, become her lover. She looks into his eyes and "...He had the most mild eyes of any I had ever looked into. Full deep brown, they revealed a man incapable of hurting anyone but himself...” Cleo’s thoughts are interrupted by the cashier, but she quickly writes that line on her grocery receipt. She’s been writing in her head I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago. The city streets were filled with strollers, tourists, young couples, kids and families, the homeless, all manner of humanity. It was invigorating to be caught up in the rush of city life; to hear the multiplicity of accents, to see what people are wearing in the big city. To shop. It is important to me as a writer to periodically have this sort of stimulation. I live by a fairly rigid routine, a tight writing schedule at the hub of it. But sometimes it’s a good thing to get away, leave the laptop at home (although the flash drive always goes with me) and observe life rather than make it up.
I’m in the mall at the Prudential. In the window of a high-end jewelry store, I see the arms of a salesman surround a tiered display, as if he’s embracing a woman from behind. The look on his face is fabulous, one that needs to be captured in words. I’m standing in the middle of the concourse, staring at him, trying to describe exactly why his expression appeals to me. His face is very smooth, pale, with thin lips pursed delicately together as he removes the necklace from the display. He seems oblivious to the fact any number of people can see him, his eyes on the item, his brows raised ever so slightly. I remember my tenth grade English teacher giving us a mnemonic for supercilious. Cilia are hairs, super cilia are raised eyebrows. Supercilious. No, that’s not what he’s projecting to me. The look as he touches the expensive item is...what? What is the best word to describe this moment? I fish around, shift my parcels from one hand to the other. Reverent. He looks like a priest. Immediately I concoct a life for him. A man whose pleasure in life is handling expensive jewelry, a little haughty, a little superior. The sort of man who goes home alone.
Now, of course, none of this may be true. It’s all just in my head. I pick up the pace, eager to keep shopping, refreshed.
In a recent issue of Improper Bostonian is an article that advices solitary diners to jot down little stories about their anonymous fellow diners, suggesting that looking like a writer is a good way to take the sting out of dining alone in a strange place. Figures it would be a writer making this suggestion.
An even more fun exercise is eavesdropping. We all do it, and I find it extraordinary that most of us never think that the tables might be turned and that our own conversation is fodder for someone else’s amusement. Putting that aside, it’s the best fun to sit in a crowded Starbucks and listen. I once overheard a woman telling another woman about her affair. (This was off-Island. Boston, perfect strangers.) They felt so comfortable in the crowded space, that neither one made an attempt to at least be sotto voce about it. The affairee was bragging to her listener that "he’s going to leave his wife. He’s just waiting for....” Fill in the blank. I was witness to a juicy bit of self-delusion. I wanted to turn around and wag my finger and tell her that stuff only happens in romance novels. I didn’t. I jotted it down and used it later in, well, in a romance novel.
People watching, like bird watching, depends on location and patience. A lot of people stroll by the bench where I sit, but only a few incite creativity. There’s the girl with the extraordinary tattoo crawling along the small of her back, multiple piercings dotting her ears beneath short hair; is that woman with her, her mother? How does she, dressed in the tony clothes of a Brookline matron, feel about her daughter’s self-expressive adornments? They’re laughing, connecting with one another. Was Mom once a sixties radical, brought back into the fold? Who knows? My imagination is boundless under this stimulation. The descriptive sentences roll out, most lost simply because I haven’t, unlike fictional Cleo Grayson, bothered to write them down on my receipts.
Every observation isn’t a whole story, simply a garnish. It isn’t simply watching and then transcribing what’s seen. It’s more subtle than that. So much of writing is derived by carefully paying attention to the little details. Fiction infused with the subliminal gleanings of real life observed.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.