The emailed writing prompts have started again, and they are doing so much to help me get back into a regular writing practice. This time I plan to throw in some “wild card” prompts that require a little more activity than the usual sit-and-write. The first one went out over the weekend:
You Can Observe a Lot By Watching (from Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit)
Go outside and observe a street scene. Pick out a man and woman together and write down everything they do until you get to twenty items. It shouldn’t take you very long.
If you study the list, it shouldn’t be hard to apply your imagination and come up with a story… but that’s not the the goal of this exercise.
Now do it again. Pick out another couple. This time note only the things that happened between them that you find interesting, that please you aesthetically or emotionally. I guarantee that it will take you a lot longer to compile a list of twenty items this way. You might need all day. That’s what happens when you apply judgment to your powers of observation.
Now study the two lists. What appealed to you in the second, more selective list? What caught your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What you included and what you left out speaks volumes about how you see the world. If you do this exercise enough times, patterns will emerge. The world will not be revealed to you. You will be revealed.
I read Tharp’s book years ago but never got around to doing this exercise until now. The prompt came into my inbox on Saturday, and on Sunday morning I took myself to Whole Foods for breakfast and a little people-watching. I didn’t bring the prompt with me, so I ended up taking note not only of what people did, but what they looked like. Here’s what I wrote.
First pairing, simple observation: man and woman
- They sit side by side, not facing.
- They both wear grey.
- He’s checking his phone.
- He’s Asian.
- She’s white.
- Now they’re both looking at the chair next to him, which he has upended.
- They just got up and walked out together, so the rest of this is going to be from memory.
- He was wearing a white and red baseball cap.
- She had fairly tightly curled reddish hair, tied up in a ponytail.
- His skin was medium tan without much luminosity.
- Her skin was quite fair.
- She wore a fitted slate-grey, long-sleeved hoodie shirt underneath a black puffer vest.
- He also wore slate-grey but I think it was a v-neck t-shirt, I don’t remember short or long sleeves.
- I think they were in their early thirties.
- They didn’t seem to have any food or groceries with them.
- They sat facing me, but with another table in between us.
- They didn’t look much at each other.
- They didn’t touch each other.
- They only sat there for maybe a minute.
- They didn’t talk much either.
Second pairing, what interests me: woman sitting diagonally across from me at another table
- She is alone in a neighborhood where I seldom see ladies eating alone.
- She was there when I first sat down, and she was writing.
- Now she’s reading, and though I can’t see the title of her book, it doesn’t look like a popular romance, thriller, or mystery. Aha, I can see the author now: Gavin Maxwell. It looks like a European edition: plain white cover, with just the author’s name and title in a clear thin serif.
- She has a nice color in her face; it may be makeup, but if it is, it’s natural-looking. Her hair is medium deep brown with no grey, straight, cut chin-length. At first I took her for a fairly young woman but there is a hint of very fine lines around her eyes, so she may be older.
- She’s just looked up toward the cash registers, as if expectant. Maybe she is waiting for someone. That would explain her solitude.
- And it is makeup after all, at least on her lips; I saw that more clearly once she looked up.
- She doesn’t appear to have bought anything, but she drinks from a silver travel mug without a lid. So she chose to come here to drink and read, instead of Peet’s, two doors down.
- There are eyeglasses laid out on the table in front of her, so she must not need those to read. There are also papers laid out on the table, one of which I suspect is a Whole Foods circular, because I can see a half-word delici on the part of the cover that isn’t folded/curled under.
- She has left her two bags carelessly on the floor by her feet: a brown leather purse, a little more sienna than her hair but with as much artificial gloss as her hair’s natural (?) shine, and a big cloth bag, apparently empty, that looks like a beach bag with its colorful stripes and white rope handles. I guess that will be her shopping bag once she’s done reading here.
- The other solitary lady here, who’d been sitting by the windows and using her phone, is now leaving. She wears nicer clothes than the other: black leather skimmers, a black gored jersey skirt, a chunky metal bracelet, a bright pink-printed blouse, a short-sleeved black cardigan. She is rotund and carries two largeish bags over her arms, and moves with a little bit of a lateral wobble (which is a nice way of saying waddle, but that’s a word I don’t think should ever be applied to a person). I guess this becomes a pair observation after all, in spite of there being no couples here.
- My original subject is still reading, now with a more intent look, her right hand raised to her mouth, the thumb over her lips in a gesture of concentration.
- The other lady has returned! She’s reclaiming her seat by the window. She has dark brown-black hair, also cut straight at chin-length, but it’s thick where the other lady’s is not, and curves around her rounded face in a circle shape, whereas the reader’s hair goes straight down with only a hint of a wave, mirroring the lean straight shape of her cheek and jaw. Now the window lady has a laptop in front of her, and a pair of glasses on her nose, and she leans over to the right of the laptop to look at some papers she’s set beside her.
- The reader still gazes intently at her book. I see a slim lavender pen grasped in the hand that still covers her mouth, and I notice now that at the right side of her two-top table there is a slim ruled spiral notebook, folded open to a fresh page. Actually, from here I can’t tell for sure that it is ruled, but it would be so much stranger if it were not.
- The reader wears a peachy pink long-sleeve crewneck tee, and plain, unfashionable-looking jeans in a very unremarkable classic blue, and white socks — not athletic socks, but definitely plain and white — and black leather shoes. I can’t see the shape of the shoes from here, but there is a little notch in the upper that reminds me of my old pair of Josef Seibels. It is an utterly uninteresting outfit, and utterly characteristic of so many suburban ladies of that age anywhere between 40 and 60, and it interests me not at all — except that it is such a marked contrast to the laptop lady’s. And perhaps they both interest me because I have my own versions of these outfits and have worn them both, more than once, for just such an occasion as this: working in a cafe, an activity both private and public. I almost think I should add myself into the picture, and make this duo a trio, but I can’t observe myself. Too bad. As I am at least 10 (and probably more) years younger than either lady, and distinguished as such by my To-Go Ware, Nalgene, and Nomadic backpack, I suspect I would make an interesting third.
- Laptop lady sits up straight, peering at her screen through her glasses. There is a pen in her right hand, too, even as she uses it to scroll and mouse. It’s hard to tell from here, but it looks like a translucent-barreled plastic retractable ballpoint with a black grip. I can’t tell her ethnicity, but her skin color has a rich depth to it that is lacking in the reader’s, even though both are more or less the same value. The reader’s skin, however, reflects the light better (which is to say, it’s more luminous).
- The reader has put her book down on the table, instead of holding it up in her hand, and the left hand that now rests atop the pages holding them open bears a narrow, glinting ring on the fourth finger. Laptop lady has no ring. Reader puts her pen to the page and makes a decisive underline.
- Laptop lady also keeps her bag under her table: a big leather satchel in pewter-colored leather, with roomy exterior pockets. The outcrop of the brick wall under the thin window makes a narrow shelf beside her table; there she has propped her smartphone, the screen facing her.
- The reader has looked up and very quickly swept her belongings off the table and into the beach bag, her now-closed notebook displaying a blue cover. She stands and takes a black fleece zip jacket off the back of her chair, pulling it on. She moves very fast, but with no apparent haste. She walks away and now I have to turn my head to watch her. She bends down with her papers and comes up without them — but there was no bin for her to put them into, and it’s inconceivable that she would drop them on the floor. Now she has one of the green shopping baskets over her arm, and she goes into the bakery section. [Later, while doing my own shopping, I realize what she must have done: put the store circular into her basket, so the coupons would be handy. I tried to spot her in the aisles to confirm this, but was not surprised to see she was gone.] Her table is now completely empty; it didn’t even have a napkin dispenser; and since she has half pushed her chair back into place, there is no evidence at all that the table was recently vacated. The store is filling up. Any moment now, someone will come to take the reader’s place at that table.
- Laptop lady is not as intent on her activity as the reader was. She looks up often from her perusal of papers or screen, and once or twice our glances have intersected, so that I suspect that she also has cast her eyes over me and observed that I, too, look up from my work and have perhaps seen her.
- But now she works — her attitude has become one of unconscious absorption. She leans on her left arm and flips the pages of the booklet on the table, jaws moving as she chews (gum?). The reader’s seat is now, as I predicted, occupied — by a young Asian man wearing earbuds and activewear, who opens a brown paper takeout container and begins to eat.
I think it’s all about the details, for me. Plot and details. Plot is the where and details are the why. That’s where the meaning is, for me. Getting the details right is just huge.
I wonder: What did you learn about yourself from these observations? What about you was revealed?
I love details, and a good plot, but I don’t seem particularly driven by either in my writing. (Details figure more prominently than plot, however.) It’s strange, given how much I adore details, but I think I have a bad habit of letting them take over. It’s easier for me, visually, to include lots of details without giving them control over the piece.
I’m sure I must have learned a lot of things, but what jumped out at me was that (a) I like to find relationships between people and things, and (b) I love clothes. 😉
That was a keen observation. You observed their behaviour. Understanding the behaviour of an individual is not easy. We may conceived when we first met them but that’s not the basis of his true personality.
Thanks, James. People are fun to observe and try to understand — especially since I know we never can. I don’t even understand myself, but learning is the fun of it!
[…] with a strong point of view and a unique voice. It’s like Twyla Tharp wrote in the “observe two people” exercise: what’s revealed by your observations is you. These are my two […]