There is a risk to observing for a living: it becomes difficult to stop observing when it would be more healthy to not do so.
There are BIG examples like seeing the tragedy that fills the world most days – famine, violence, despair. Sometimes seeing those can absolutely overwhelm me, a writer with just words as her tools. This is why I don’t watch the news – the images just lay on my heart too heavily, and I can’t pick them up to turn them into language. (That’s not say, though, that writers do not need to bear witness to these things; we absolutely need to do so, just in ways that we can feel healthy and balanced.)
But there are smaller examples, too. The way a person walks or the specific words he says – “pet hates” instead of “pet peeves.” The way she asks questions when she begins to fear taking action. The way I find something about a conversation to obsess over for hours, long after the other person has given it up to the place of vague memory and pleasant association. These things, when attended too closely, can bog me down for a moment and toss me into the world of reflection instead of leaving me there, in that moment, where I am.
Of course, for a writer, the ability to recall these details, to lay them out on a stark background and see their outlines and colors, to cherish them as the precious things that make moments that, in turn, make lives – this is a precious gift, and one I’ve worked very, very hard to cultivate.
But as a friend, a daughter, a date, I wonder what it feels like to be on the other side of these observations that I, sometimes, cannot stop speaking. What does it feel like to be scrutinized in that way? Or maybe more specifically, what does it feel like to know what the result of such scrutiny is as you are observed? I’m not thinking it’s very comfortable.
I’m often telling my students that writing requires a more careful voice and vocabulary than the one we usually require for speaking, but today, I’m also thinking that our speech requires a more careful filter and distance than what we require for writing. As a writer, my work is to observe and then note what I’ve seen. But as a person whose primary form of communication with most other people is speech, my work is to observe and then respond, not take mental notes. I need to be better at this.
But I turn the question to you: If you’re a writer, do you find yourself speaking things that might better be left to the page? Or if you love a writer, do you wish sometimes that she would leave unspoken some of what she sees in you?