For Thursday, January 21, 2016:
“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require [our] attention.”
There are ways to stare without being too obvious about it.
Today holds another opportunity to sit in another doctor’s office waiting room. Over the years, I’ve made it a habit, if I know I might be waiting for a while, to have a notebook with me and to write down what is going on around me. The babies crying or cooing, the adults who sit perfectly still with apparent worry, the young people who focus on their cell phones, the people who bring a book with them, those who make eye contact and those who don’t.
I do this in hospitals, airports, and train stations, too, but the smaller space of a doctor’s office makes it harder to observe humanity without being rude. If I can, I find a seat in a far corner of the room, pull out my notebook and pen as soon as I sit down, and write a few lines without looking at anyone. I write about what I can hear and smell, what I saw before I sat down.
Then I stop and look off into space for a moment or two, or look out a window if there is one. This is when I can collect a few more details. My eyes may look unfocused, but they’re really not: I can get a better feel for people’s body language, who’s talking to whom (or not), how people are dressed, who else is looking out the window or staring at the floor. After I look down and write a few more sentences, I stop, shift in my chair and look around again, and gather up more specifics.
There are a lot of potential stories in waiting rooms, and certainly character sketches. I’ve seen obvious heartache, weariness, stress. I’ve seen excitement, joy, careful hope. I’ve seen boredom, strength, persistence, praying. I’ve seen artists drawing – are they doing what I am? – and, once in a while, others who appear to be writers – they are doing what I am, notebook and pen in hand, and we make easy eye contact with each other and smile.
A writer’s stare is the tape recorder of our brain. We may not always have a notebook with us, but most of us always have our eyes and our memory, our senses of smell, touch, and taste. So what opportunities do you have to pay attention today? If you get caught staring, just tell ’em that Flannery O’Connor gives you permission!