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The Fine Art of Noticing

First, A Story

Every year, a friend of mine organizes a staff Christmas party for her one-person business. She calls it the Company of One Christmas Party, which I think is a brilliant name.

The first year she was indeed alone, and she posted a photo of her solo lunch on social media. She talked about what a great time she had, how important it is to celebrate milestones as a solo-preneur, even (or perhaps especially), those milestones that no one else can see. (Like say, your company earning enough extra money in a year to take yourself out for a nice lunch.)

Of course that was the last time my friend had a solo lunch — a bunch of us that run our own businesses hopped on board, and we’ve been having “staff” Christmas parties together ever since. Sometimes they happen as late as March, because that’s when all of us can make it happen, and I think one year it was even in summer, and that was okay too. (This year, rather than have the party on Zoom, we have held off. Maybe we can have take out in the park when things warm up and open up a bit.)

What I want to tell you about is something that we all witnessed at one of our Christmas staff party lunches. There were a whole lot of us that year, and it was late Spring and we stayed so long that the restaurant staff were mopping the floors around us, so I’m pretty sure it was a dinner, not a lunch, but you get the idea.

Part way through the meal, I noticed a couple sitting at a table across the room. There was something very tense about their situation, I picked that much up at first glance.

Without me even being aware of it, the writer in me perked up. What was it? Where was the tension coming from? Was it in their body language? They were just a young couple, having dinner, weren’t they? How did I reach the conclusion, after barely a glance, that this was a conflicted moment for them?

At the time, I was not thinking about how this question might serve me as a writer. I don’t go into experiences looking for writing prompts, and the idea that I could be that transactional as a person makes me shudder. I think it’s more that I cannot help but notice these kinds of details because I am a writer. The curiosity about the people and world around me comes first. The noticing comes first. The practice of turning those details into story comes much, much later, if at all.

I was at a table with six or eight fabulous women, each one an entrepreneur or remote worker, making a living in a small mountain town by their wits, talent and the sheer force of their creativity. I crave that kind of connection, and every single one of these women was a friend. It was a pretty spectacular outing, and yet, I kept being distracted by the couple at the table across the room.

I knew it was tense. But how did I know? I looked closer.

I decide it must be their clothes. She’s wearing a tank dress in a silky material, a pastel-coloured wrap that looks soft and inviting and a pair of tights. Leather boots that hug her thin calves. I’d love a pair of boots like that. I bet they cost more than a semester of my son’s piano lessons. Her hair is curled and shiny, she’s wearing full makeup. We’re in a mountain town, remember. Dressed up is a clean hoodie and Blundstones.

He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Like guys everywhere, I think, but even more than that. He looks like he’s made an extra effort to look like he’s making no effort. I know that looks can be deceiving — his t-shirt might be ripped-on-purpose silk-cashmere, his jeans might be designer don’t-you-dare-ever-wash-them, but I really don’t think that was the case.

Could it be their expressions?

They’re not talking, or when they do, it ’s not for long. She smiles and says something. He replies in a mono-syllable, then the conversation halts. In the quiet minutes, I watch her face. The yearning I see there makes my heart ache. It also makes me think this is not their first date. Could you have that much yearning for someone you’ve never met before? I start to think that this is a break up date. Or maybe a fight date.

She smiles, her whole face animated, and says something. The hope hangs in her face for a moment, smile sustained, eyebrows high, eyes too bright. It takes a few seconds after his grunt of a reply for her expression to fade, like the tension being let go from an elastic.

It was so remarkable that I tapped the arm of the woman next to me and asked her what she thought was going on. Eventually, everyone at our table was taking surreptitious looks at the couple. Now, I’m not sure there’s a way that we could have been discreet about this, eight self-starting women staring at one couple, but we were quiet when we conferred with each other. And we all reached the same conclusion. This was a date from hell.

By the time she got up to go to the bathroom, we were all watching. And you won’t believe what happened.

He started eating French fries off her plate.

What do You Notice?

I’m going to leave that story there, at the height of tension, because the story itself is not my point. My point is that writing starts with curiosity. Writing comes from noticing. Good writing is full of specific detail, so, it follows that noticing details wherever you are, and letting them sift down so that you can rummage through them later, is just something that a writer does.

There are the details themselves, and then there’s the viewer’s opinion about the details — which gets expressed as point of view. As the viewer in this instance, I immediately think it’s a bad date. Maybe they hooked up once, and now he’s moved on, and she’s hoping it will turn into something more. My experience in life makes it easy for me to assume that he’s trying to get away with the minimum amount of effort. Also, I’m jealous of her boots.

But what if this scene had a more sympathetic viewer? What if they are not a couple, but brother and sister. What if she’s flown in from the city to check on her brother, who has a mental illness and has been having a hard time. Maybe this is as hard as he can try. Maybe him even showing up in the restaurant and eating a meal is a miracle in itself. Maybe it’s part of a very different story than the one I imagined.

What do you think this story is? Could be anything. That’s the thing – you’re the writer. This kind of detail is your clay. You get to call upon some details, picking the ones that will build your story.

You can see how witnessing a small vignette like this can keep a writer busy for a long time.

I hope you are still showing up for your writing time. If you are looking for something to do, feel free to play around with this story and fill in your own details. If you were the viewer, what would you notice?

P.S. I am developing an on-line course about getting your writing done without going to battle. Peace, Love and Writing your Novel or something along those lines, (okay, the title is a work in progress). If you’d like to receive and email from me when the course is ready to go, drop me a line here and let me know!

1 thought on “The Fine Art of Noticing”

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