Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Musings on Observing via DFW

"Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers."
A true lurker, I snapped this photo of two strangers posing for another photographer's lens

My brother loaned me his copy of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and this is what I’ve been reading for the past month. This is the first work from DFW that I’ve read. The combination of being an extremely slow reader, and doing the majority of my recreational reading right before bedtime, has made this a drawn out process. 

I just started the third essay/argument, and I’m still on the fence about his writing. I think he was obviously wildly smart – probably one of those people too smart for their own good – and his brain may sometimes have got in the way of his ability to solidify his ideas for the reader.

But there have been glimmers throughout the pages. Like this quote from his “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” essay:

                                        Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. 
                                        They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway 
                                        about whose nonchalant stares there is something creepy, somehow. 
                                        Almost predatory. This is because human situations are writers’ food. 
                                        Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: 
                                        they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses.

This is a nice reminder of a trait most of us would likely associate with creative types. I do enjoy observing people, but it seems to stem from an interest in human nature, rather than a concrete “I’m going to watch a bunch of strangers until I get an idea for my next story” goal (And of course we have to subtly spy, as our social grooming taught us that outright staring is rude/weird/creepy). But maybe the urge to observe stems from the same place that generates the urge to write?

In my experience, very rarely does observing lead directly to an immediate this-could-be-worth-writing-someday moment. More often the attention wanders to the next person, out the window, back to my own hands, and the observed detail wafts gently downstream. Falls soundlessly in line with the endless marching of thoughts, memories, hopes and anxieties parading around. And then much further down the road (perhaps while staring at the ceiling, thinking what to write next; maybe while folding laundry) something observed comes back to life – seemingly without any effort on my part, almost without recollection of having observed it in the first place. And it seems to fit perfectly with my character or the scene unfolding on my half-written page.

We notice the things meant for us...
I’m of the belief that we only notice the things meant for us. Not to imply that we should maintain a passive float through life (we could all stand to be more present, more observant), but if we imparted every detail around us with the utmost importance, it would be too overwhelming. However, what I love about photography – about bringing a camera with me on outings and trips – is that it forces me to open my eyes a little wider. I’m more on the lookout for moments, so I can capture them on film. Of course, you can’t force these things, and sometimes there are no pictures snapped.

Or I don’t have a camera on me, or it’s not practical to take a picture as the moment unfolds. On a bus in England, whizzing past a field where two people kiss on top of a large roll of hay. Walking behind an impeccably dressed old man, hunched with age, as he ducks below the trailing branches of a weeping willow. A yellow convertible pulls up in the next lane on a late summer afternoon, a wrinkled white bulldog leaning out the passenger side. Moments observed, saved to mind film, waiting to come back to life someday.

1 comment:

  1. You're so right about some people being too smart for their own good. Every gift has a price and social isolation is a big one for the brainy ones. I am partway through DFW's biography. I had no idea his life was that hard. (the suicide should have tipped me off but I'm not one of those brainy types) It's a very good book, though, so I bought (used)a copy of Infinite Jest for some of those cold winter nights. The first piece of his writing I ever read was a short story called "The Depressed Person". I had a person in my life who was exactly like the character in the story. Love the photos in your post, too.