Sunday, April 12, 2015

Humans: They Amuse Me

April, my loves. April has come with all of its busy glory and I have to say that the front half of it has been impossibly full. For one thing, my hours at work were slightly beefed, I snuck down to Atlanta to surprise my best friend, Katie (Lady Alis of The Windy Side of Care), Easter happened while I was down there, and then I came back to play hostess and fundraiser and help my sisters organize, prep, create art for and throw a swanky soiree silent-auction to benefit our upcoming missions trip to Romania. All that to say, I have not written anything except people-watching sketches this month. I feel slightly bad for even admitting that until I realized that living life also qualifies as research. Meeting and appreciating new people helps one build realistic characters. Hashing through life situations with friends helps one understand and portray nuances. And I think we're all on board with the idea that travel broadens the horizons of one's mind an awful lot. So maybe April has been full of useful and unusual methods of research.

I am currently in the mood to ask each of you to drop what you are doing and start up a people-watching journal. I can't tell you what a treat it was to drag mine out on the flight from Norfolk to Atlanta and read back on all of the wonderful humans I have come in contact with since I began to write about them in December. It is such a treasure because each description, however slight, never fails to conjure up an exact image of that moment in that place. Take this, for example:
"A man with shy eyes an a gentle smile and his young daughter are sitting across from me. He has good hair and is in his prime but has no ring. His daugher is shy around him, leading me to believe he is divorced, not widowed. Very handsome but sad-looking, somehow. His daughter has his profile and their eyes share the same quiet humor. She is about twelve, he probably in the late half of his thirties."
When I read this, I can picture the exact table in the Busch Gardens Fest Haus at which I sat when I encountered this man. It is a fascinating way to retain experiences as well as practice one's descriptive powers.
"The man is so terribly conscious of himself. Not self-conscious, but apparently confident that all eyes are ever upon him. I dislike him so strongly and I am unsure whether it is mainly his real character I despise or whether I merely resent the fact that he expects homage paid...One fears to ask oneself what sort of life he leads that he can afford to leave all so flippantly and gang tae the hielands on his ridiculous whims. (He) is proud of being a dilettante and I have no patience for it."
My entries range from the frustrated (above) to the amused (below) and everywhere in between. But all through I find myself content with playing the game of capturing likenesses of as many people as I can in words. I think of it as my hobby, sort of in the same manner as photographer Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York project.
"...When we finally ordered, Maryanna mentioned a shrimp allergy and he grew so incredibly excited.
'Oh, I totally understand,' he crooned. 'I'm allergic to everything under the sun--lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant--I'm also a bit of a hypochondriac. And I was eating shrimp the other day and my lips started itching and I am so worried I am developing a shellfish allergy.'"
I usually keep the entries brief, though some require longer explanations if I take time to set the stage of the interaction. Of course it is inconvenient to keep such a thing up; I realize that. I learned the discipline required in the first year I went to Romania and religiously kept my travel journal. But I count my people-watching book a valuable tool. Not only does it serve as an opportunity to improve my non-fiction writing skills and keep my goal of writing something every day, but it also gives me an entire volume of characters to choose at will for my stories. Do I need someone unusual, or a funny interaction for a scene? With a people-watching journal kept faithfully, I ought to have plenty from which to choose a case that fits. Let it be a lesson, dear folks: there are many reasons keeping your eyes and ears open (and remembering what you see and hear) is of value. Also, never underestimate the power of smiling at strangers and looking approachable. You never can tell what sort of interesting humans are waiting for a chance to meet you!


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

It's funny you should write about this just now, because over the last few months I have become (partly inspired by you) an amateur people-watcher. Nothing so fancy as a dedicated people-watching notebook, but I like to scribble down in my journal a few scraps about interesting people I notice. In addition to storing up ideas, I find it really sharpens my eye for detail and description. And it adds a spark of interest to an otherwise dull and exhausting grocery-store trip.

I was out shopping a couple weekends ago, and in a clothing store I saw a woman who reminded me of Mrs. Jamieson from Cranford—she didn't look at all like her, but she was looking about her with the very same "I am not at all diverted" expression that Mrs. Jamieson displayed while shopping at Johnson's Universal Stores. :)

Carmel Elizabeth said...

I love the idea of keeping people-watching encounters in a notebook. I've had countless interesting or amusing, saddening or surprising occurrences with strangers, and only a sparse handful have stuck around in my memory. I wonder if I would have the discipline to keep something like this up; mostly, if I write down an occurrence it goes in my journal, but perhaps I will make more of a concerted effort to detail the life around me. If anything, it's good fun to look back and read what you have written and recall the circumstance. ;)

Hannah Joy said...

Wow. I am so doing this.

I love how you said that sometimes living life is research in and of itself--so true and yet I always forget it and beat myself up over a period of time where I just don't have time to get any writing done. But even those moments are research and work as long as you tune yourself to notice things! :-)

Now, to go start my people watching journal....

Becca Weston said...

This post made me instantly think of "Murder by Quill" by Michael Phillips. One of the characters keeps a people-watching/character inspiration journal, and i thought it was a brilliant idea. (The book was interesting, and reminded me vaguely at times of various Wodehouse books and a combination of the Agatha Christy books. I think that was the feeling that he was trying to capture. I loved it at times, and intensely disliked it at other times. :)

I shall have to seriously consider starting a journal for this. I could use some new inspiration!

Rachel Heffington said...

Elisabeth: HA. How funny to meet a character out of character, if you know what I mean. Isn't it funny when someone's personality resembles another person's though they are, in all respects, entirely different?
Carmel: I don't keep a regular journal these days, so if you write down interesting occurrences in a regular journal, I don't see why on earth you'd need to keep TWO. I just keep the people-watching one. :)
Hannah Joy: I hope you find it a lovely memory-jogger. And yes, beating myself up is a thing I'm still learning to get over.
Becca Anne: "Murder by Quill" sounds hilarious. I think I'd enjoy it...if the author managed to make the Wodehouse-Christieness his OWN and not bad copies...