“You see that guy?” I said, nodding toward the Indian man who’d just parked his black SUV on the roadside and stepped out to catch the bus my housemate and I had just boarded. “Every day, he speeds up and parks his car, jumps out, leaves the door open, and runs to the bus, while his wife walks around from the passenger side to climb into the driver’s seat and drive away.”
“You notice all this?” my housemate said, scrunching her face into a smirk.
“Yup.” I shrugged, not bothering to mention that the reason I hadn’t squshed my way to the door in preparation for exiting our previous bus was because I knew the tall Spanish-looking guy between me and the door was also getting off — he always gets on the bus at the stop in front the Catholic school, switches to the Q43 when I do, and climbs on the F train in Jamaica like I do.
When I’m going from place to place — whether I’m in a car, bus, train, or on foot — I’m soaking up my surroundings, paying attention to people, the things they do, directions they go, words they say. This doesn’t mean I remember everything. That would be impossible. But if a person stands out in an interesting way (wears a specific scarf or leaves their car in the hands of someone who does) and does the same interesting thing multiple times, I notice and it sticks with me.
I told my landlady a couple weeks ago, “I’m a sponge in transit.” The truth is, I’m a sponge all the time — whether I’m traveling, working, reading, eating, or sitting still. If I’m talking with someone, I’m not only listening what they’re saying, I’m noticing the words they choose, the way they put sentences together, their tones, inflections, and body language. If I’m watching, reading, or listening to anything, I’m trying to understand it. If I notice something interesting, I pay attention. If I space out, I’m sorting through what I soaked up, trying to figure it out enough to put into words.
Today, I went to a soccer tournament in Long Island City, Queens, for a story I’m pitching for publication in the next 24 hours. I interviewed several people on the sidelines, learned their soccer backgrounds, what brought them to the tournament, etc., but I gave much of my attention to the action on the field, noticing player attitudes, playing styles and speeds, apparel (keepers in long sleeves and sweats versus those in shorts on turf threatening to tear skin from bone). I paid attention to what they were doing, how they were doing it, and the kind of atmosphere they created, because that kind of action and possible conflict does more to create a story than someone talking about how much they love soccer and how they want to play it until their heart stops beating.
Sitting and standing on the sidelines, I had my notepad out with my pen, immediately putting into words what I saw in front of me, scribbling detail after detail in wind-frozen chicken scratch. In some instances, commentating on paper, but mostly writing fragmented narration — because games on turf move fast and writing a full sentence would mean missing five other details.
I’m not usually writing down the things I notice — today was me on a mission for a story — but I’m always in sponge mode, and that’s typical for writers of all shades, from poets and fiction writers to nonfiction writers and journalists. If you wonder how your favorite author makes his stories believable, almost tangible, check the details. You’ll find evidence of the author’s sponge mode. Even if a detail is invented, it has its beginning in a piece of reality the author observed and took note of.
One of my professors last semester (one of those English profs who actually writes as much as he encourages his students to) spoke often of the power of precise details to make writing vibrant and believable. (He used two specific modifiers to describe the right details, but unfortunately, at the moment, I can’t remember them.) Since then, I’ve noticed his point to be true: the strongest writing, the writing I read and relish is rich in details that fit the scene, setting, characters perfectly, give enough to paint a picture, but don’t weigh down the narrative. It’s a balance Victor Hugo struggled to reach (i.e. he didn’t reach it, though I’m still reading Hunchback and enjoying it), one Hemingway probably thought he reached (and I’m a big fan of his style, so I can’t really argue), and one I’m working on.
It starts with sponge mode: noticing the details and writing them down or logging them in the back of your mind. And when you get to writing, you think through those details and pick the one (or several) that are most interesting without being distracting, and that carry the most weight for the piece. You always question your first choice, because in the initial writing, you may not know exactly what the detail’s purpose is. But once you know what you want the detail to accomplish, you settle on (hopefully) the right one and move on.
Bringing you up-to-date:
Monday: Internship. I interviewed an Australian professor, scheduling with a 14-hour time difference. It was Tuesday morning for her and Monday evening for me.
Wednesday: Internship. Started outlining my piece for City Limits. Choir practice and church.
Saturday: Got sunburn on part of my face after being outside in the height of the day at the Play Soccer 2 Give tournament in Long Island City. I was wearing my Taylor hat and the sun hit me from mostly one direction, so my forehead’s still white, but my left cheek and neck is pink and noticeably so.