Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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The strenuous marriage (1 of 3): careful observation

"Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language."
- John Irving

In this and the two articles to follow, I will be discussing those components of the art of writing that John Irving calls careful observation, careful imagination, and the toiling with language, that is to say, what a writer brings to her work and how she does that work.

Careful Observation

Fiction writing is not merely observation, it is not reportage. But lasting fiction, even the meta-fiction that goes beyond realism, is powered by the author's accurate and original study of the world. This study, this perception, sees into the infinitely small as well as the infinitely great. This perception is the skill of observation. It is what the real writer must learn.

Learning to observe means slowing down Time. Just as details reveal themselves in a slow-motion film, so too do the details of human behaviour and natural action when acutely observed and accurately remembered. You walk down a street, you see two people arguing through a restaurant window. You become a camera, recording each gesture: his hand clenched on his wineglass, her head tipped forward to make her hair fall into a shield, his direct stare over her head. You might not consciously be aware that you're taking in all these details – you can't be consciously aware of everything you see every minute of the day – but you find, later, that you can replay the scene in your head, can zoom in on her, zoom in on him, can replay the feelings you felt in exact detail as you watched them.

Try with something that happened to you today. Choose an ordinary moment, perhaps waiting for the lights to change, perhaps watching someone buy a burger. How did the light fall across the hood of your car? Or that person buying the burger: what do you know about him? Young, cool, poor? Old, tired, disillusioned? What about the person serving him? Stressed? Impatient? What is the difference between a cocky jut of the chin and a frightened one?

Observation is expanding yourself into the world. You must live in the moment to see the light across your car and the way the wind moves the wires overhead, the way being in a car makes you feel like a cyborg. You make yourself remember these things about yourself, the sense of the plastic under your legs, the smell of the hot dashboard. If you can't play back all of your senses easily, take time deliberately to turn them on. Sight, say. What sort of light illuminates a burger place and where does it lead your eye? Look at objects as if you've never seen them before. How do they make you feel? How do you think they might feel, if they had feelings? Are birds cheerful or malevolent? Thoughts like these feed your stories.

Observation is the expanding yourself into other people. You must know yourself, be honest about your every emotion and impulse, for it is the sympathetic understanding between you and others, what might almost be called the empathy, that lets you comprehend another human mind. Learn to recognise in others the outward symptoms of those inner feelings we all share. Maybe that person buying a burger reveals his stress the way you do: getting forceful, punching his finger in the air. Maybe he goes stiff and silent. You have to know the feeling, then learn the infinite ways people demonstrate that feeling. How does an elderly Chinese-American man react to stress? How does a Russian teenage girl?

Observation is looking. It is not judging, guessing, or assuming. A man goes stiff and silent. Carefully observe him. Is he angry? Or embarrassed? Watch what he does and you will learn. Ah, he is apologising: he was embarrassed. So that's how that sort of man exhibits his embarrassment. When you next write about someone like him, your memory will deliver to you what you need. You might not know what the real man was thinking, but you can surmise:

"He stood staring at the young woman behind the counter. What has she said? These foreign accents, he couldn't understand them, not with his hearing getting worse all the time, and she was something, Albanian, Russian, one of them. He didn't want to upset her, she could have been his grandmother come over from Canton, it was important to remember, that everyone was once new – so he could help her by apologising, maybe, asking if she would say again. Apologies cost nothing."

Watch actions, see the consequences. Was it a lover's tiff you saw through that restaurant window or the split second after she had blurted out that she loved him? Was it sunlight across the hood of your car or the reflection from a window? Once you have a data-bank of memories, you can use them. You can play with a memory: "What if I were a bodyguard and the light on the hood of my car suddenly moved? A gunman opening a window to take aim at my client, maybe? What would I do then?" Or you can take the tense couple in the restaurant and invent the next few sentences they might say to each other:

'I saw you with him last night.'
'So what? Jack's a friend of mine.'
'You were kissing him, Steve.'

Careful observation gives you the building blocks you need to write convincing scenes in vivid prose. If you can conjure up the lighting of a burger joint, the light on a car, the facial expressions of a quarreling couple, you can encourage that trust in a reader you need. The reader will trust you because you show them a recognisable world. They will enjoy your startlingly 'right' images: "The counter gleamed like a polished locomotive and behind it, like engineers in their peaked caps and jaunty neckerchiefs, the short-order cooks jumped to the needs of roaring grills, the steaming bread ovens and whistling deep fryers, their kitchen open-throttle until midnight." The reader will be held by you because you give them insights that illuminate their lives, and so will keep reading. And that's your goal.

If you can't see what's around you every day, how are you going to create a real imagined world? If you can't get inside the head of someone you're looking at, how are you going to get inside the head of someone you've made up? How are you going to write a real story unless you know the real world?