The Observant Writer

My most liked tweet for the month of February was this one:


Considering that most of my twitter followers to-date appear to be other writers, it doesn’t surprise me that Flannery’s words resonate.

I imagine that many of my fellow writers were a lot like me when they were little. The quiet one at the family dinner table. The one who was perfectly content to sit alone at recess, watching what my classmates were doing, absorbing the sights and sounds for a story that wouldn’t be written until a few decades later. But a concerned teacher mistook my happy solitude for loneliness. I soon learned that it was better to play with everyone else instead of sitting in my corner, otherwise my classmates would think I was weird.

Fast forward to today and you will find a drawer full of jotted down observations in my home office filing cabinet. Little notes gleaned from staring and from listening.  Like these:

  • Thursday night. US Airways shuttle, La Guardia, end of terminal, June sunset, about a dozen people in waiting area for gates 15-22. Quiet. Business travelers only.
  • Overheard (Rittenhouse Square): “You’re sleeping man. Your world is gray.”
  • (New York) Steam rising from sidewalk grid. Smell of rotting vegetables. No one is looking up.
  • Overheard while in line at Dunkin’ (Warwick, RI): “Eddy’s in prison right now…”

Which reminds me of one of the funniest random lines I overheard a few years ago in a little ranching town somewhere between Calgary, Alberta, Canada and the Montana border. I was on a road trip with my parents and we stopped for lunch at one of those hole-in-the-wall places where all the locals go. Ragged linoleum flooring, dusty plastic flowers in the window box, faded newspaper clippings taped to the walls. We were the only customers other than a group of six middle-aged rancher women who were apparently there for their weekly gossip. At first, we were too busy enjoying our delicious Alberta Beef burgers to pay much attention to what our fellow diners at the neighboring table were saying until I overheard this tidbit: “Yep. Frank’s just never been the same since that time he fell off the roof and hit his head. Such a shame…”

I did a little lean closer to their table to hear the rest of that conversation. I really, really wanted to know what had happened to Frank. What was he doing on the roof in the first place? And the WAY the woman said those words—almost gleefully, like it served Frank right that he’d been stupid enough to fall off that roof… Then I caught my mom’s eye. Uh-oh. Within seconds the two of us were stuck in one of the biggest giggle fits I’ve ever had in my life, tears streaming from our eyes. My dad, who didn’t know why we were laughing, couldn’t help but laugh too. I was aware of those women looking at us, so I pretended we were laughing at something my dad had said. When they got up to leave soon after, my mom and I were still giggling. I think my dad waved at the women and told them to have a good afternoon.

One thing I have heard my dad say many, many times over the years is “Observation is the key to success.” That applies to anything. For writers it means never stop staring, never stop listening. Observe. Observe. Observe. Shamelessly.

I still want to know what happened to Frank. I’ll have to imagine the rest of his story and put him in one of my books.

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