Any writer I’ve ever known loves to watch people. I love to talk to people, engage with them and discover their story. Sometimes as writers we look for the stories. Other times, they fall into our laps.
My husband and I were the only two people in a bar last night. I spoke to a 22 year-old bartender, whose father died of cancer five years before. She told me she was leaving our small town to move to a nearby state. She remained very upbeat throughout the conversation, looking me in the eye as we talked. But when she started talking about her father, who I knew as well, I noticed something. She started stocking the fridge even though it was just before closing and she could hardly fit another bottle of beer on the shelf. When our bartender finished that, she started scrubbing the counter around me even though there wasn’t a mark on it.
I tried to change the conversation since it seemed to upset her but she brought it back to him. She stopped what she was doing and leaned in. A friend of her father’s had visited the bar one night and cried while talking about him. She told me this was what she couldn’t take and why she couldn’t stay.
Everything reminded her of him. Everyone telling her how much they loved her father, how much they missed him, how much she looks like him, and what a great guy he was. She stopped for a moment and looked off into the distance.
“I just can’t take it any more,” she said in a half-whisper.
Though she didn’t say and may not even know it, I realized that she needed to get away to heal. Her father’s death was a constant open wound. She didn’t tell me this. But this is what I understood from her words and body language.
The same thing happens to us in our writing. Or, at least it should. We as writers should be able to convey this through writer observation. If I were writing this scene, the bartender shouldn't tell the patron, “See, I have to get away because I need to psychically heal in order to return to the world I’ve always known.” The subtext should come to the reader naturally and not be spoon-fed to them, the same way this information comes to us in our daily lives.
I keep thinking about our conversation. It affected me. I hope it turns out well for her. If she were a book, I would keep turning the pages to find out how it all turns out. This is the type of book I want to write.
Let me know how what you observe plays into your writing. What kinds of things have you observed that have helped you in your writing?