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. 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. 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 but what I really did was lift my eyes and ears to the room.
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. 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. There is so much nervous energy and uncertainty.
From my spot in the corner I observed a rather unusual couple.
There was a beautiful young woman in sexy spray-painted leggings. With her was a much older gentlemen; portly with a monk’s crescent of hair and a business shirt taught over his tummy as plastic wrapped over a basketball.
He so painfully wanted to impress her that he assumed an uncomfortable 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 woman in her sixties and a young Adonis sat down to a sandwich. I immediately imagined a torrid affair.
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 fox fumbled through an I-pad assisted conversation.
He seemed distracted but occasionally stroked her upper arm in encouragement which I can assure you she indeed found very encouraging.
There are over three hundred thousand 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. No, watching is altogether different. It’s a writer’s lifeblood. It’s the joy of observing every idiosyncrasy of humanity.
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 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.
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.