Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What Are You Looking at? Are You Writing About Me?

The other day, a group of my friends and I went to lunch, and at the table next to us, a woman was sitting alone, looking around the restaurant. She dug furiously into her bag, checked her cell phone, clearly agitated, looked around again, checked her phone, looked, checked, looked. My friends may have noticed her, but if they did, they didn’t comment on her behavior. They were too busy talking about the drunken weekends they had all had. But I kept sneaking glances at our neighbor. What was she doing? Was she waiting for someone? If so, who? Her husband? Were they in the middle of a nasty divorce and his tardiness was the reason for their relational demise? Was she about to be interviewed for a new job while taking a lunch break from her current one? Was she the first to show up to a blind date? Why was she so angry? Was she just an unpleasant shrew? Or did she have reason to be upset? To anyone else, she might have just been a harried patron, starved to hypoglycemic irritation. But to me, she was a story, a character with hidden motivations and goals, which were clearly being stymied. And as I turned to my friends and added my own snarky comments about debauched parties and office politics, I realized that I did the same thing with them as I did the woman. I noticed their inflections, their tilts of the head, the way they used their hands to emphasize the funnier parts of their stories. I absorbed the way they laughed or snorted, how their eyes sparkled or reflected prismatic colors in the sunlight. I took in what they were wearing, how one kept adjusting the collar of her shirt and how another scrunched her never-will-be-wavy hair. And I listened to their stories, the content and details of what had transpired on their Saturday nights, but perhaps with less ridiculousness than the version they were then giving.

As a person, I’m naturally perceptive, I think. I’m quick to pick up on someone’s mood, on the fleeting looks she might give another to relay her dismay or bewilderment. I’m also fairly introspective, and will keep events and conversations in mind for a long time, often rolling them through my head repeatedly like movie scenes so that I can layer them with my observations. I linger over these things because relationships—human interactions in all their levity and curiosities—arrest me. What goes on inside a person’s head fascinates me. It’s because of these interests that I write character-driven fiction instead of mysteries or horror (and also because I spook too easily to write those genres). And when I’m in the middle of a draft, I find that these qualities kick into high gear, sometimes rendering me hypersensitive. Or at least I feel as though I’m overanalyzing everything, not just in my writing, but in life in general. I don’t know if other writers experience the same heightening of his or her senses, if a horror novelist starts to see evil lurking in the mundane. At some point, I have to stop myself from thinking that every comment or email or silence is indicative of anything more than the face value of it. That sometimes, a statement is merely the product of impulse, that unresponsiveness is the result of distraction. Why do I do attribute meaning to everything when clearly not everything carries it? It may be because in a book, there are no wasted scenes. Or insignificant dialogue. Or haphazard action. Novels are the grand distillations of life, the collection of conversations and events placed specifically to move the story forward. And through these lenses, everything in the world garners import, deserved or not. Some people call that insight. Others may call it obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it’s where I draw my inspiration, the myriad possibilities why a person acts the way she does, why she says certain things, why she looks the way she does. And so I watch. And listen. And try not to look like a freakish stalker as I absorb the kernels of the everyday that may ultimately drive an entire book.

So there you have it. Yes, I may very well be looking at you, and yes, I may be writing about you, too. But it’s because you are endlessly fascinating, a relentless source of inspiration and potential that feeds my imagination. And at the end of the day, there’s nothing more a writer can ask for.


jax said...

I often do the same thing because strangers are a good source when creating characters. Everyone has a story and if you don't know it first hand, it's just as interesting to conjure up a story for them. :) Works great when I'm stuck on a storyline.

Walt Mussell said...

You'r more observant than I am. I am trying to reach that level and incorporate it into my writing, but I have a long way to go.