We are an anecdote-making species. We tell stories: the time Aunt Suze’s cat got stuck in the sewer; the time Uncle Moe was arrested for skimping on child support…. You don’t have to be a writer to make stories out of your life. Stories are one way we make sense of the random occurrences, minor tragedies, and banana-peels of existence. But writers…ah, we are a scary group. Because at any time, consciously or unconsciously, we’re taking notes.
I am 17 and a passenger in a car accident. I don’t just recall the accident and the peripheral touches (the wash of beer and macaroni salad across the highway; pulling the scarf from my hair and offering it to a fellow passenger with a gash on his cheek), I am watching the reactions of the people around the accident. I am watching the mix of emotions in the driver of our car: guilt, anger, anguish (her car and her guitar, both totalled!), and stoicism. I’m watching the way the state police handle her — a mixture of kindness and sternness, with an eyebrow’s worth of skepticism when she said she hadn’t been drinking. I don’t even know yet that I’m going to write, and yet I’m storing this stuff up.
I’m in my mid-30s, having a baby. I’m doped up and miserable, and yet I’m still taking notes. When my OB comes in to say that the baby’s heart rate keeps falling and they’re going to do an emergency C section, I decide that things must be serious because the doctor, who had not heretofore had any trace of accent, has a distinct southern drawl when she says “We’re goin’ in and get that baby.” “Where are you from?” I ask her. She thinks I’m doped up and crazy, but tells me: Savannah. I note that, under stress, some people revert to their mother-tongue. Then we begin to argue politely about whether I can watch the procedure (alas, no. That would have been fascinating).
And on and on. One of the curious, wonderful things about doing research is that people will tell you anything. I once spent an hour on the phone with a lawyer — during highly billable time — asking questions about how one talks to a criminal client who is in jail. The guy didn’t just answer my questions, he added details I didn’t know to ask about, didn’t charge me, seemed delighted that someone cared about the stuff of his life. I talked my way into a museum in Paris (with my terrible French!) because it was the only day I had available, and I was writing a book… And a docent took me around and showed me things the gen pop didn’t normally get to see, because I cared enough to ask to see it.
People love to know that someone wants to know the details, wants to learn about the things they know. Why is it, then, that, writers sometimes feel vaguely unclean and sinister for observing the details of our own lives and using them? I certainly used to feel that there was something wrong with me for “taking notes” in crisis situations. Why am I not in the now? My husband is in the ER and I’m noticing his nurse’s flowered socks. My three-year-old is having her chin sewn up after a bad fall and I’m noting the structure of muscle, fat and skin the gash reveals, before it’s sewn up. I’m having a breast-cancer scare and wondering about the technology used in the ultrasound. Why am I thinking about this peripheral stuff?
Because, for better or worse, it’s what I do. It may be a mechanism for handling stress, but it’s more. When something unusual jars me out of my routine, my first thought, on a very basic level, is “someday I’ll use this.” Maybe I’m a ghoul, robbing my own life for the details that will convince my audience that what they’re reading is real. I’ve stopped worrying about it but, me being me, I can’t help but notice it.
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