Friday, July 22, 2011

Paying Attention to Detail

I had a writer's imagination long before I had a clue I could write, before I ever thought I might one day write a book. I had imaginary conversations with people real and fictional, and wondered if anyone I knew did the same thing. I was pretty sure it wasn't normal, but I was loathe to give up the practice. Then, when I began to write, I felt like a part of me had clicked into place and, finally, there was a valid outlet for all the imaginary things that went on inside my head. It seems I was "in the writing frame of mind" that Debbie wrote about before I knew there was such a thing.

I've always been a people watcher. I was the quiet one in the class or the crowd, soaking in the details of everyone around me. For a long time I thought it was the artist in me paying attention to detail -- and it was. For years I drew, then painted, and people were always my subjects. But I wanted their faces to say something to me. (Here's a typical drawing from way back when.) But my people watching was so much more than the active eye of an artist. It was learning the intricacies of characterization; the multi-faceted layers of story. It was growing into the realization that "story" is a way to communicate what's important to me (as did my artwork), hopefully in an intertaining way -- unlike the novel I'm currently reading, which is nothing more than a treatise on the author's pet issues. Notice the plural form of the noun? In fact, it reads like a checklist of what's near and dear to her heart (please forgive the cliche). It's as if she fashioned a garment for the sole purpose of having a framework on which to attach her favorite sequins. It is, in fact, a popular novel, but not with me, even though this is an author whose other books I've loved.

That's not what I mean by writing about what's on my heart.

The posts this week, as well as the comments -- we learn from you too! -- reminded me that paying attention to the world around us involves all the senses. That was driven home on Wednesday as I stood waiting for my take-out order at Panera Bread. (If you've never had their Frontega Chicken Sandwich, you must!) An elderly couple crossed my path on their way to a table, and the first thing that I took note of was the woman's red hair -- the color of which cannot be found in nature. I was also aware that the stark color didn't go with the loose folds of powdered skin that hung from her face, or the stoop of her shoulders, or the arch-support shoes she shuffled in. But again, people watching doesn't stop with the eye. And in this case it also involved my nose, as they passed with a conflicting array of scents: perm solution, spray starch, and perfume that hasn't been advertised in glamour magazines in decades. Those smells were definitely at odds with the fragrance of freshly-baked bread and homemade soup that filled the eatery, but they took top billing in the space I occupied for a good ten seconds or more.
I also love catching snippets of conversation when I'm in a public place. They're such great springboards for characters and scenes. Even things my family and friends say find their way into my novels. Those who know me well, know there's nothing sacred, nothing "off the record." Ever.

So what about you? When did you know you were meant to write, and what dimensions has that added to the person deep inside you? The one no one knows but you.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I happen to believe paying attention is one of the finest tools a writer can use.

And yeah, I had the pretend friends. I was just laughing on the phone the other day with a good friend (Katie Ganshert, I think you know her. She swing by here often) joking with her that my characters are probably just layers of each of my split personalities!

That drawing is beautiful, Sharon. Such emotion there!

And I love people watching & listending (& even smelling, though I'm not a dog.) :D

I had the hunch I was bound for writing when I liked all the above things, but I knew it was my calling when I woke up to all the aspects of what you wrote about.

Profound difference for me.
~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I admire you more than ever now that I've seen an example of your artwork. Wow.

When I was a young girl I thought all the time in third person omniscient, watching myself in situations.

I wonder if now I'm compensating for that by writing novels in first person. Before, watching myself from a distance, now, inside the heads of others.

Do I need therapy?

sally said...

I love this post. And what a great picture.

I used to daydream as a kid--I was like James at Fifteen, if you remember that show. I was the heroine of my own adventure stories.

Hmm. I guess that explains why I have a commercial bent and not a literary one. :) I would get so into my daydreams that sometimes I'd be walking along with my friends and I'd laugh out loud at some private joke or speak to someone in my daydream.

I knew I wanted to write even before I started the daydreams, though. I wrote a story in the first grade and my teacher read it to the class and they all laughed in the right places. They clapped when she was done, and an applause hog was born. I didn't go on to get all the applause I wanted in real life, which is probably what sent me into my imaginary world where everyone loved me and thought I was the coolest thing to ever walk, ride a horse, or shoot a gun.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Love the portrait! Did she make it into one of your books?
"When did you know you were meant to write, and what dimensions has that added to the person deep inside you? The one no one knows but you."
As soon as I could multiply words on a page (later than most children) I was hooked. Speaking was mostly forbidden in my house but on the page I could pile words up and toss them around and loop them through and through each other. Strange things could happen in vivid detail. I was never in control of what came from my pen (long before the days of keyboard), always surprised and delighted and eagerly addicted. Perhaps this is the one no one knows about, not even me.

Anonymous said...

I love all the comments. Thank you for the compliments on my drawing. It's what consumed my free time from as long ago as I can remember. But I stopped drawing when I began to write. A while back I bought a sketch pad and pencils, and even have a picture torn from a magazine of the person I'd like to draw, but I can't work up the nerve to try.

Latayne, yes, you most definitely need therapy. Book therapy. You're an amazing, amazing author, and writing is all the therapy you need. I love how you describe that you thought in third person omniscient, watching yourself in situations. That so perfectly describes me as well. And like you, I LOVE to write in first person. I especially love present tense.

Anonymous said...

In 4th grade science we had our big project of the year. We could build something, conduct an experiment, write a paper about some scientific principle or write a short story that involved a list of science terms.

Being lazy, I chose the last option. Then I realized that there was nothing lazy about that project. Rather, it was something invigorating. My teacher entered it into a contest (I didn't win).

I come from a family of artists, some with serious mental illness. The whole "living a movie" thing seemed normal to me. Funny, huh?

Lori Benton said...

While getting ready for work this morning, I put on a CD of Native American inspired flute music. It was telling how different my reaction to it was from my husband's. He said it was so melancholy it made him depressed. I could see how that could be, but I wasn't at all depressed by it. It had transported me to that place where I'm halfway submerged into the emotions of another person. I found the music wistful, a little sad, pensive, but it wasn't ME feeling these things. It was... him. That Mohawk or Shawnee or Cherokee man who is longing for that part of his culture that is irretrievably lost, yet hoping for a future for his children, a way to live in this altered world the war between the British and the Long Knives has wrought. He's singing out loss and hope and I'm listening and story-weaving while I make a sandwich at the kitchen counter.

It isn't always music that transports me to this story-dreaming place. Scenery can do it. A person's voice can do it. Another novel can do it (strangely enough, where it sends me often has nothing whatsoever to do with the setting or characters of that novel). I have no idea when this sort of thing began happening for me. I wrote my first story when I was 9. But I didn't begin writing daily until my early 20s.

The way a writer's brain works is not the easiest thing to explain, is it? You would think, being a writer.... :)

Latayne C Scott said...

Lori, is that Carlos Nakai you're listening to?

Boy am I loving this conversation on NM today!

Megan Sayer said...

I, like Sally, had more fantasies in my head than I knew what to do with while growing up. I never connected them with my desire to write books though - they seemed quite separate.

When did I know I was meant to write? The moment I can look back to, the one that made my personality and all my quirks make sense, was a Novel Matters discussion on dialogue not that long ago.

Oh, and just a few weeks ago here people were talking about how hard it can be to live in the moment. And I thought it was just me!

Here's one other thing I'll tell you only because you're a bunch of writers...for years I had a bunch of characters in my head that I used to process emotions I didn't want to deal with. I'd switch off emotionally, use these characters to act out the feelings and deal with the responses and sort through what it all meant, and once I was okay with it all I'd let them go for next time. How mad is that eh? I'd never tell anybody because they'd just think I was loopy - I'm not. I'm quite sane. But it helped. It's taken me all this time to realise it's just a terribly writerly way of dealing with things.

Nicole said...

Yup, did the third person omniscient, too. And the movie reels. And directing performances by the neighborhood kids in the backyard. And writing and reading stories in backyard summer tents.

Loved horses, writing, and novels my whole life . . .

Lori Benton said...

Latayne, it isn't. It doesn't even say who the musicians are on the CD. I think it was given to me. But since I like this music so much, I'll go looking for Carlos Nakai.