Friday, February 24, 2012

Entry #40 – “Taking Note of The World: What Do Writers See?”

Writers need to spend time doing “serious people watching” - if they hope to capture the curious complexity of language and gesture in human interactions for the page. While I often take my notebook to places like local coffee shops, parks, a nearby Mall or the County Library, and even record the colorful seasonal activities at the nearby Farmers Markets, some of my most useful journal notes have come from my travels.

While I’m on vacation I look forward to studying the activities around me.  Wonderful material for settings, scenes, and characters all unfold around me, if I take the time to notice.  And it’s interesting what you see when you look and listen with a small notebook in hand. I find I’m mostly invisible. Few people really look at others. 

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
And lately, I have thought about a recent cruise that I took in late fall 2011.  I went back to my journal notes last week and reread observations – some of which I’ll likely use in a story that’s under construction right now. It occurred to me that the people on that cruise are “characters” in their own and someone else’s story, and even strangers have the potential to provide substance for my imaginary worlds.  So when I travel, I take note.  I write phrases and scraps of dialect and dialogue in my notebook as I notice the small kindnesses and conflicts that go on around me. I hang out and watch. 

I’m reminded that Henry James said that “a good writer is one…on whom nothing is lost.” And since later, if I’ve not written myself a note about that clever turn of phrase, odd perspective, peculiar character in white overalls in the buffet line at breakfast, or the warm and funny banter between that old married couple, I will forget, just as surely as I will forget about that wonderful bay scallop and butter/citrus sauce dish that I had for dinner last night.  If I don’t take note of it, some of what I experience will slip away and while thankfully - much of it will settle into the compost heap of my subconscious, some richness will be lost.

Something about a new setting always causes me to “see” and hear the variations and commonalities of our shared humanity. I once read an interview by Tom Wolfe and he said something like (I’m dredging from memory and paraphrasing here) ‘If you spend a month anywhere in this country and take notes, you will find stuff and people you never even knew existed before.’  My notes lead me to thoughts about a young man I observed on the cruise.  He had tattoos running like sleeves on both arms. I have wondered what those tattoos would look like when he is 65 years old and the muscles in his arms are stingy and shriveled. Or perhaps if he gains an excess of weight, those tattoos will sag and sway.  Either way those pictures of faces and flowers likely will become sinister.

I’m particularly reminded that writers need to get away from their desks and go out into the world with a small notebook (and pen) in hand and turn a sharp eye and critical ear to the world.  A writer’s work requires him or her to tune into that which is nearly tangible, and transfer that into rich descriptive words that capture the complexity of people and places in this diverse, but portable world. 

Saul Bellow said, “I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”   And it helps if you can take notes before you forget what you saw.


  1. This is really awesome prose.

  2. Hi Anonymous-
    Just trying to capture the essential things that people say and do. SO - what do you see? What do you notice? Where do you go when you want to write about what you see?
    Thanks for you thoughts! Jan