‘Once you get into the habit of keeping notebooks, you will begin to notice noteworthy things; you will become uncommonly attuned to all manner of things you might not normally see, and this noticing will become ingrained, almost like a reflex’.
Exercise Five of Andrew Cowan’s ‘The Art of Writing Fiction’ brings us to eerily familiar territory from my undergraduate degree. Cowan suggests keeping an observational journal; a notebook small enough to keep in your pocket, and generic enough that you won’t fear writing in it (I have so many blank notebooks), the purpose is to note any phrases, behaviour or scenes which strike you.
From this, you will then have a repository of real behaviour at your disposal which can be used to embellish a piece. Or, perhaps, spawn a new piece of their own.
To complete this task I decided to make my observations at the one place it seemed most sensible: at work. Yes, instead of using any of my free time to sit in a coffee shop, I thought it wise to do observe whilst I had a dozen other tasks at hand.
In truth, the rationale was that I had done a coffee shop. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have been different this time – every day is an opportunity for something new – but on the opportunities I have observed in a coffee shop, the material recorded has been so oppressively dull that to include it in a piece would detract, rather than embellish.
Instead, I know from experience that all sorts of weird things happen at work which could make for good observations. Below are what stood out to me. In the spirit of honesty, a fair number of the quotes are things I said because I like how I talk.
Exercise Five: Observational Journal
- Gone for a few weeks, become a ghost. ‘Mike who?’
- ‘I had such a clumsy day yesterday’.
- ‘That’s how you out-post the post: move by Tupperware’.
- ‘I don’t have the upper body strength, nor the willpower, to handle boxes’.
- ‘Do you want a cheese scone?- Daft question! Daft question!’
- ‘Cheese biscuits? Biscuits for cheese’.
- The grimace of concentration.
- The old lady who spends the whole day in the store before her daughter collects her when we close.
- ‘I prefer the earlier Bond films – more English’, said the slightly racist man.
- ‘That’s right, isn’t it? I’ve got Caroline and Jill, Linda and Paul’.
- Parents narrating their lives to their children.
- Staring with an unwavering smile before saying hello.
- A father lifting the tasting display and feeding the entire thing to his children in a feral display of carnivorous delight.
- ‘These haven’t got covers on ’em, can we have ’em cheaper?’ ‘It’s not time yet’. ‘Fuck’.
Once again, I’m sure if, or how, any of these observations would directly apply to my current writing. My preference has never been to explicitly portray ‘real life’, as such an act renders your writing redundant: ‘real life’ is just a step outside away for anyone. Instead, I like to intrude upon ‘real life’ with an element of the unconventional or unexpected.
However, even in these works the dialogue and characters should remain natural, which is one aspect in which these quotes could help. Most of all, though, Cowan’s words from the beginning of the chapter resonate. He quotes W. Somerset Maugham saying, ‘I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it’. Cowan disagrees with this notion, but I find myself leaning towards it.
Whilst the isolated chunks I observed may be inapplicable in their own right, the act of observation heightened my senses to the extraordinary nature of ordinary . Even the subtlest incidents seemed prime for building a character. Most of all, observing teaches you that people are really, really weird.
Find all posts in this series here.