An Observation on Observation
Every writer should be an observer.
Every writer should watch the people around them, taking in the nuances, the poetry of conversation, the body language electric that at once disguises and simultaneously reveals. I’m sure every ‘how to write’ book you’ve read has preached this from the plinth, with the congregation nodding in stern-faced approval.
As a single man with little purpose other than wallowing in middle age, working out and pretending he’s younger than he is, dreading the day when he actually will be old, I find that I’m probably less observant of the world than I used to be. It’s just a phase, says Black Dog, chewing my hand (not in a nice way). But hopefully you’ll stay that way as long as possible. It amuses me.
I was a people manager for many years and it was my job to read and lead employees and clients, to communicate expectations and needs and desires and to assist and mentor and help and cajole and…well, you get the picture. I felt then that I had a good sense of how people worked, almost like an engineer watching machines he’d designed being assembled in the factory. I had training in psychology, I was respected and reasonably well-liked (no manager should ever be totally liked, otherwise you won’t make the hard decisions). Black Dog scratches himself behind the ear. I’d assume it was fleas but that’s an impossibility. You loved and hated it, he says. Stop thinking about the past. I prefer your depressing present.
I believe I’ve retained some of my skills. I’ve always been an observer (what’s that they say? Always a watcher, never a doer? Something like that). I’d like to think that some of this rubs off on my characters. It’s hard to tell though, because I’m always a little too close to what I write to make an accurate assessment (sounding a bit clinical there, but sometimes you have to be).
So, yes, I guess I’m still an observer of life and people. I guess I always will be. And if you plan to be a writer, then you should be, too.
It’s hard to describe where my characters come from. Sometimes they take form as I type. Sometimes I already have them in mind or I take pinches of ingredients from people I know and mix them together in a big bowl. Occasionally I’ve spotted someone, a busker, for example, and their story has come to me as I watched, like a song: all twisted notes and delicious intonations, sometimes in odd time signatures.
Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) says: “Few of my characters are described externally; we see them from the inside out.” The character has to feel real. If I write someone and they sound fake, or just don’t work, I erase them from existence like a contract assassin and start building again. I can be a bastard when I need to be (I’m sure my ex-wife will concur with that).
I do undertake research, but only if the character is from a period or has skills I’m not familiar with. It’s like with settings, if you don’t know what you’re talking about your reader will know that you’re faking it.
I like the Anthony Trollope (Victorian-era author) quote: “A novelist’s characters must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and love them.” I can identify with that.
I don’t know how well I create characters. I’ve been told I’m good at it, but all the old anxieties come to bear when I revisit my creations (am I good enough? Why am I writing at all?).
Black Dog raises his head from his paws, where he’s been resting it while watching me intently (as he always does). Self-doubt? he says. I love it. Keep on rolling in that cesspool. Sometimes I pat him, but he just nips at my hand–a warning–he doesn’t need to be encouraged.
I look at Black Dog. He stares at me as always. Occasionally he breaks eye contact to glance at a paw, like he’s checking his nails. He’s not uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact, he’s far too self-confident for that. Another opportunity for you to put yourself down? He says. Well, get started. You know I like to savour every whining moment. He’s back to staring again. If he could smile, he would.
“He hears their voices even before he knows them”, said Andre Gide (1947 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature). This is so true for me.
Dialogue is one of those funny things. People like to think they’re good at it, but as with the art of conversation, we’re never as good as we think we are (don’t believe me? Try remembering your last dinner party conversation. I’m sure you held your own, but if you look back and scrutinise it closely you’ll notice the intermittent pregnant pauses, the occasional wandering eye, the excuse to get another drink or change the subject).
I like to think that I write good dialogue, but I’m often too close to the material to be able to make a fair judgement. Some readers have told me my dialogue is good, but being a writer, I’m not always sure if I believe them or not (Ah, says Black Dog, sniffing deeply. There it is). Like most writers, I tend to be a bit insecure and my confidence is not always at its best (Oh, yeah, says Black Dog, closing his eyes and rolling onto his back. That’s the stuff. More.) I believe everyone is learning, all the time. Writing is no different. The day a writer says they know everything there is to being a writer is the day they’re fooling themselves.
It took me a long time to make the decision to be an author and there’s no going back now. I may be poorer financially and emotionally (Yeah! cries Black Dog, writhing in blissful contentment), but writing is something that’s seeped its way into my veins. Like a somnolent drug, it’s as blissful as sleep and just as contenting, and it’s something I couldn’t give up now, even if I tried.
P.S. I hope you weren’t hoping to learn some actual skills from my rambling. There are plenty of courses, books and blogs around for that. In the end, it all comes down to your commitment and your experiences. Just start from there. And read. A lot. Learn from the best authors–there’s a wealth of wonder in those books, and they’re the best school there is.
Want to read some of my flash fiction? Click here.