Why Writers Watch

My sister is a Clinical Neuropsychologist. I have yet to see a person meet her and not worriedly suggest that she has been psychoanalysing them.

Little do they know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not my sister who’s watching them. It’s me.

You see, I’m a writer.

It is instinctual for me and those of my kind to watch. We watch the way you walk, stand, sit, even the way your smile spreads from the left side of your mouth to the right.

We watch how one leg kicks out a little faster than the other, how you nervously rub your lips together before saying something important and even how far you lean forward to sit.

Every little thing about you is interesting.

Recently I arrived two hours early for an evening class. I’m the kind of person who arrives early to everything.

I sit for hours in airports, bars and parks before the designated time to do so. It’s not because I’m particularly anxious about being on time or that I enjoy solitude, although I do, it is purely because I like to watch.

So there I was, two hours early, toting my notebook and a glass of Shiraz at the café downstairs. I made all of the small little movements and flutters to make it appear as though I was about to do some ‘serious’ work type behaviour but what I really did was lift my eyes and ears to the room around me.

On the first week I was immersed listening to a conversation between an elderly couple who were reminiscing about their travels through South America.

Although both in the latter half of a century on Earth the woman seemed a little younger. She attentively brought her husband hot tea from the counter and placed an adoring hand on his upper knee.

There weren’t many words shared between them. They didn’t need words. They communicated with glances and small smiles and seemed symbiotic even to the extent that by the end of their drinks they were sipping simultaneously.

On the second week I sat with my red wine and had the great pleasure of observing a first date. Ooooh I love watching first dates. They have to be one of my favourite ‘watching’ experiences. There is so much nervous energy and uncertainty.

From my spot in the corner I watched this rather odd couple; a beautiful young woman in sexy spray-painted leggings and a much older portly gentlemen with a monk’s crescent of hair and a business shirt pulled tightly over his tummy as plastic over a basketball.

He so painfully wanted to impress her that he assumed a ‘Downton Abbey’ formality asking loudly at the counter “Could you please tell us which hot drinks you serve at this establishment?” She cringed and he hovered hopefully as her ‘hot drink’ benefactor.

On the third week I was onto my second glass of red when a linen adorned older woman and young Adonis sat down to a sandwich. My mind immediately imagined a torrid affair.

It was the ‘watching’ jackpot. But it didn’t take long to realise that instead of pre-copulation carbohydrate it was instead a language lesson.

The young Italian man sat patiently as the glamorous older lady fumbled through an I-pad assisted conversation with him in his native tongue.

He seemed distracted but occasionally stroked her upper arm in encouragement which I can assure you she indeed found very encouraging.

There are over 300 000 people in Australia who would fill their occupation as ‘writer’ on the type of paperwork that asks this question.

That’s a lot of people ‘people’ watching.

But watching is far removed from its ugly cousin stalking, or even its mutated sister slander. No, watching is altogether different. It’s a writer’s lifeblood. It’s the joy of observing every little beautiful thing about what it is to be human and every person’s unique experience of that condition.

I once had a writing teacher say that she loved to watch people fight. It wasn’t because she enjoyed conflict or that she was into a bit of biffo. No, it was because it is in an argument that a person responds instinctually.

When a writer observes true instinct they can colour their characters with the sort of complexity that breathes life into them.

We aren’t to be feared. We are good people, we truly are.

And we aren’t watching you so that we can write about you. We are watching you so that we can understand people and write compelling and human characters from the swill of ‘conversations-listened-to’ that swirl within us.

So to the elderly couple, the first date and the language lesson I say thank you. I don’t know your names and I don’t want to. But I do know how you react to touch, hot drinks and new languages and for that my characters and I will be forever indebted.

4 Comments on “Why Writers Watch

  1. I enjoyed your post. As a little girl I would often be admonished for staring at people. Now I try and do it unobtrusively. Ive started thinking of life slogans for people that I imagine as similar to speech bubbles above their heads. Eg “Good Mum”, “Hard worker”, or “Life just served me a curveball and Im still in shock”. 🙂

  2. It is so true! watching people is sooo interesting 🙂 I enjoy noticing couple’s behaviors and reactions to different situations, and trying to guess what’s their life like behind the scenes.
    Great post, thank you!

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