There’s an expectation that writers are supernaturally observant people, whipping out their notebook at every opportunity to record seemingly insignificant things that will later take on multiple layers of meaning when transformed into pieces of plot in their latest novel.
Beware, people think when they see a writer approach. Watch what you say, watch what you do or you may find your words copied and pasted onto the personality of a fictional person in the writer’s new book.
But it’s not quite so simple. It’s very rare that I take an entire incident from life and put it in a book. And that’s not because I’m not observant. I think I subconsciously filter the things that I observe. So when my husband says that I’m not observant because I haven’t noticed the house two blocks away that has a veggie garden on its verge, it’s just that my observational filters haven’t been set to notice veggie gardens. Unlike his. Lucky he’s not a writer. Passion in the Veggie Patch is probably not the best title for a novel.
When I’m out walking with my kids, for instance, I can spot the tiniest of dandelions, feathers, pine cones, pebbles and various other items that children consider to be treasure worthy of collecting and then presenting to me when we return home as, ‘a decoration for your desk.’
And when I’m working on a novel, I will, for instance, happen to actually read the TV Guide on the one week in which there’s a documentary covering a topic I need to research for my novel. It’s like, as so many people say, when you’re pregnant you suddenly notice lots of other pregnant women, women who’ve been there all along – it’s just that your observation filter hadn’t let them in until now.
If having highly developed observation skills is a prerequisite for being a writer then I think all children would naturally be writers. They notice everything. Every inconsistency. Anything new. Anything unexpected.
For instance, on the weekend I came down to breakfast, having noticed in the mirror on my way a teeny, tiny spot on my chin. A pimple that I felt sure was invisible to the rest of the world, so small it was.
‘Mummy, you’ve got a sore on your chin,’ were the first words my 2 year old said to me when she saw me.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite so teeny tiny as I thought.
‘You should put a bandaid on it,’ she then said.
Yes, because that would make it less noticeable, wouldn’t it? Especially a bright blue Wiggles bandaid.
This is the same child who is convinced that she has a picture of a fox on her bed. What is actually on her bed is a spot of cracked and peeling paint. When she told me she had a fox on her bed and dragged me insistently in to her room to show me, I could see, upon closer inspection that the peeled spot did look a bit like a fox’s head. But I’m quite sure no one except a child would have seen this.
And there was a duck in the bath the other day, or so she said. It was actually a bandaid that had fallen off her knee the previous night and lay crumpled on the edge of the bath. And yes, if you studied it, it did have a duck’s bill, wings and webbed feet. But I would never have noticed it unless she pointed it out. To me it was just a manky bandaid.
So, after those incidents, I have decided that, the next time I have an idea for a story, I will tell my children about it. I’m sure that, within an hour or so, they will have seen, observed and imagined almost everything I need to turn my idea into a story, complete with foxes, pimples and ducks.