By Erik Goetz
“A good writer is always a people watcher.”
– Judy Blume
“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
– Emily Dickinson
As a full-time creative writing student and resident of SUNY Purchase struggling to put the human condition into words, I often feel a lack of inspiration. A misanthropic hermit, I spend almost all my time reading or writing. My exposure to humanity is often limited to classmates and professors, the cashiers at the bookstore who ring up my energy drinks, and my suitemates (whenever I think of something new to complain about). Routine days spent headphoned in a predictable sphere can be a net plus for productivity and mental health, but not so much for the volumetric flow rate of one’s creative juices. For any artist coping with this dilemma, one solution is to spend time and money on exotic vacations or hallucinatory drugs. A cheaper, healthier, and more rewarding alternative is to force your brain to locate or conjure stories from whatever meager creativity-stimulation resources are available.
Sitting in a crowded place and people-watching is a good way to train the writerly eye. Creeping on social media can be an important lesson in the machinations of vanity and self-fashioning but, for our purposes, it’s not an ideal setting. The best writing exposes truth and vulnerability, while the static representations of humanity you find on Facebook and Instagram are meticulously curated to paint flattering self-portraits. Operating in the offline world, we have fewer tools with which to hide our true self. The way we move through and interact with our environment can say a lot about who we are, or think we are. Am I saying you should base the protagonist of your next romance novel– a nymphomaniac French volcanologist/assassin – on the tiny cheerful woman who works at the White Plains Mall McDonald’s? Short answer: yes, but it takes work. It’s imperative that writers train their senses to constantly be on the lookout for interesting details, and to train their imaginations so this raw surface data flowing in can be panned for literary gold: a character-defining trait, a revelation that makes you see someone or something in a new way, or a street scene/snippet of overheard dialogue that is so idiosyncratically absurd that, in a million years of staring at a blank Word document, you could never have come up with it yourself.
With this goal of absolute perceptivity in mind, I head to the Westchester Mall with my friend, fellow writer, and Italics Mine nonfiction editor Andy Tang for a people-watching session. We post up between an escalator and Santa’s workshop, which sprawls garishly in front of the Lucky Brand store, roped-off and empty two months before Christmas. A yellow-helmeted Segway cop swoops around the perimeter, chasing off the hordes of tween selfie-seekers trying to sneak onto Santa’s sleigh. We look around for long stretches of silence. I scribble in my notebook and Andy taps his tablet. We discuss the difficulty of judging to what extent a person is putting up a front: a wealthy foreign national trying to blend in amongst the American slobs and an underprivileged high school student trying to affect an arrogant nonchalance as he blows the entirety of his Taco Bell paycheck at the Gucci store. He explains how to spot a fake Louis Vuitton bag and I explain how my receding hairline has given me super toupee-spotting powers.
I direct Andy’s attention toward a ponytailed man in a XXXL Deadpool shirt riding up the escalator holding his tiny daughter’s hand in one hand and a GameStop bag in the other. In my younger and more judgmental days, condescension fodder like Dadpool over here would be filed away in a mental folder labeled: Dismissible Caricature. File Name: Man-Child-Snacking-and-Gaming-his-Time-Away-at-the-Expense-of-his-Child-Child-and-Wife.GIF. Another droplet of ink for the stereotyping pool in the back of my mind. Nowadays, I try to follow Hemingway’s advice: “As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” I make myself picture a young Dadpool escaping from bullies at school and at home into a world of comic books and video games. I picture him committed to a mental hospital, feeding ducks by a pond and falling in love-at-first-sight with his future wife, who is sitting on an adjacent bench reading the issue of X-Force where X-23 slits her wrists to prevent the spread of the Legacy Virus. I see him cheering from the back of the bleachers, surrounded by former bullies, as his rebellious soccer star daughter scores the championship-clinching goal.
People-watching can help your writing, but it can also be an exercise in empathy. Behind every cliché exterior is a story that doesn’t mesh with the easy categorization that one might apply to discount a person’s status in the grand hierarchy of what is “interesting.” The world is exactly as boring or exciting as you want it to be. The only thing keeping you from seeing classmates, coworkers, and complete strangers as fascinating, multi-dimensional characters whose lives are just dying to be dramatized or stored away for their future utility as a template for the hero of your bestselling series of supernatural teen horror romance novels is your own preconceptions.