Keen observation skills. That’s pretty much an essential quality for a writer, right? We observe setting. We observe atmosphere. We observe human nature. We observe conflict and emotion and irony.
But boy, I’d be lousy as a crime scene witness.
Detective: “Can you describe the perpetrator?”
Me: “Um. I think it was a white guy.”
Detective: “Are you sure?”
Me: “Or maybe it was two Black women and a Chihuahua.”
Detective: “A Chihuahua?”
Me: “Wait. It might have been a goat.”
My husband is the one with the keen observation skills. He sees someone in a mall and asks if it’s someone I used to work with. I look carefully. “Uh, maybe,” I say. But it probably is someone I used know, because my husband is far better at faces and names than I am. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls into the garage and within the first ten seconds notices that the left front tire on my car is low, the lawn mower has been moved a couple of inches, the birdseed bag is almost empty, and the porch light is on. Me: “We have a porch light?”
So why isn’t he the writer? He remembers details. He notices things out of place. He pays attention. Apparently I just bounce through the world like a pinball, blithely banking off hard surfaces. (Speaking of which, where did this bruise on my shin come from, anyway?)
And yet, when I sit down to write, I can see the entire scene as clearly as if I were standing there (okay, obviously clearer). I can see how the clouds wisp over the mountains, and how the late afternoon haze obscures the horizon. I can trace the grain in the wood of the table where my character is sitting, I can feel the tension lines in my character’s forehead as he puzzles over his latest conflict, and I can make the breeze lift the hair on the back of his neck just so. I know the color of his eyes (coffee) and the length of his palm’s lifeline. I see the pattern knit into his sweater and where his work gloves have nearly worn through a crease at the base of his thumb.
And I can feel everything he feels, from his wildest passion to his tiniest shiver of misgiving.
Some people’s real-life observation skills and memory are like photographs: the lines are sharp, the details vividly clear. Mine are more like an impressionist painting – I feel the shape of things, sense the emotions, absorb the color and texture. The actual, observable details are less meaningful to me than the emotional weight pressing down on someone’s shoulders.
When I write, I try to take all those impressions and create a new picture of the reality I sense is important. Something fresh. Something untried. Something intoxicatingly real.
Just don’t ask me to be a witness in a crime investigation. “He seemed distressed and forlorn” probably won’t be much help in a lineup.