The wonderful thing about writing is that the writing itself makes life worth living. The things you see, touch, or smell can be used to add verisimilitude to your settings. Any given experience could be the catalyst for that pivotal scene in your novel where everything changes for your characters. Since you can’t know a priori what is going to matter, all of your experiences are elevated. For me, the necessity of observation is freeing and beautiful because it sweeps away existential angst. Maybe I don’t know what my individual purpose is, and perhaps I can’t even be certain I have a purpose. However, being a writer makes it possible for me to accept that whether or not there is a point is besides the point. My dedication to writing is a self-made purpose that is independent of an existential imperative, buy-in from a higher-power, or fate. With practice, I believe the act of observation can imbue even frustrations with meaning.
Okay, yes. Some meetings I attend feel like waste of time, but they’re a perfect place to watch people interact. Given my imagination, it isn’t difficult to translate what I see in the conference room to what would happen to those same type of personalities given different, more extreme circumstances. On bad days, I can sit in traffic a total of two hours. By leveraging my powers of observation, that time isn’t lost, either. When it’s not over a hundred degrees, I roll down my windows. I listen to the machinery of the cars, the horns, the shouts. I watch the body language of the couple talking in the car in front of mine: are they arguing, making love without touching, staring out the windshield in desperate boredom?
Once, when Hemingway was out with a friend, they saw a dead dog near the train tracks. The carcass was not fresh, and Hemingway’s companion was quick to avert his eyes. Hemingway, writer that he was, declared it our duty to look clearly at everything and to see the triumph in even the nastiest signs of mortality. He understood that active observation is the key to writing. Papa knows best, kids. Just don’t expect your non-writer friends to condone your dallying with the partial remains of deceased animals and you’ll get along fine, I can feel it.
In theory, I can observe in any situation. In practice, I tend to be swept by waves of emotion and lose the serene bit of detachment necessary to conduct useful external observation. Yet even noting my own emotions is the sort of observation that can – has – made an impact on my ability to depict realistic characters. Awareness isn’t a new idea or one specific to writers. Indeed, entire life philosophies are built around the concept of mindfulness. I do think that if you’re a writer, you’re duty-bound to be an observer, regardless of religious or philosophical bent.
Andrew Hudson asked me if I am a pantser or a plotter. For those not up on the lingo, please forgive my deliberate use of cliché and allow me to define a ‘pantser’ as a person who writes by the seat of her pants. A pantser does not adhere to any sort of outline-first, write-later stricture. A plotter is the opposite of a pantser. As I told Andrew, I’m a pantser. I have bright flashes of insight prior to beginning a writing project, but these aren’t held tight to any particular plot. During the weeks or months of drafting, everything and everyone I encounter might reveal a bit of the story I’m trying to tell. It feels like I’m on a scavenger hunt that doesn’t end and where the boon for my quest is always leading me to yet another fascinating quest. It’s enlivening. It’s fun. And, best of all, it’s all right here, every day – life actual!
The alchemy of writing transforms the base lead of life into something golden, pure, and transcendent. As a writer, it is my sacred duty to pass these transcendent revelations to my readers. Might there be a bit of dirt mixed in with the gold? Of course. I may be a writer, but I’m still human. However, I am dedicated to refining my observations into increasingly high-quality stories. How? By practicing observation and being open to the whimsy of truth.
Ready, set – transmute!