Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Observant Writer

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By Dennis McCloskey

The late, great New York Yankee player and manager, Yogi Berra, had an unorthodox way of expressing himself, like when he said: “You can observe a lot of things just by watching.” He’s the same guy who was asked why he never went to a certain New York City restaurant, and he replied: “No one goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

Berra may have had an off-the-wall manner of putting things but he was certainly an observer of the human condition, as we all—especially writers—should be. If you don’t think you are particularly observant or attentive, take heart: you can learn to be more watchful; more aware; more conscious and alert of your surroundings. How else can you create a character if you don’t study the people you meet? How else can you describe a house if you don’t pay careful attention to the architectural details? How else can you write readable dialogue if you aren’t all eyes and ears when people are speaking?

As a freelance writer, I have ample opportunity to look, listen and learn and transfer my experiences into my writing. I have been writing for “Homes and Cottages Magazine” for 15 years and I can perfectly describe a quaint, Victorian-style, cottage-by-the-sea because the magazine once sent me to P.E.I. to write about a vacation home (on the road to the ferry at Wood Islands) called Déjà Vu. I have written about an all-concrete home in North Bay, Ontario. Last month I spent four hours with a family in their 13,000 sq. ft. mansion complete with walk-in fridge and freezer, two live-in housekeepers, and original pieces of art and sculptures and artifacts from dozens of countries around the world. It is the most colourful and eclectically-decorated home I have ever seen, and you can bet I took copious notes of everything—including the shape, colour and description of the objects of art in case I ever want to describe such an opulent and unique home in my fiction writing.

My work with this magazine has helped me hone my observational skills of people. In the past, I have interviewed a handyman who makes wooden teeth; an octogenarian who was still working as a bricklayer; and male twins from Croatia who worked together as roofers and were amateur comedians. You can’t make up characters like this!

How are your powers of observation? Think of the last time you were served by a waitress in a restaurant. Now, describe her in detail. Were there any unusual or unique characteristics about her? What is the colour of the tiles in your bathroom shower? Can you describe your neighbour’s front entrance door?

One of the best essays I’ve read on the powers of observation appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of The Royal Bank Letter in which it noted that the mass of people take little notice of what’s going on around them. “They don’t know what they’re missing by not observing more consciously,” the author wrote. "Observation helps to bring success in business. More important, it is the key to a vibrant life.” The essay went on to say that W. Somerset Maugham, who became the best-selling author of his time, trained himself to be observant by spending hours in the British Museum, jotting down everything he could gather about the pieces of art on display. William Shakespeare apparently was an observer “par excellence” who wrote that through observation, one could look clear through the deeds of men to the motives behind them.

According to the RBC newsletter, some are born with the faculty of keen observation, and others must develop it. The fictional Sherlock Holmes was a master observer. In one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about him, Holmes says of a man he has just met for the first time: “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.” One glimpse of his visitor was enough for him to take in all these points of identity.

I’d love to continue writing more about the importance of being observant, but it’s noon and my wife has just called me for lunch. I can’t help but notice that she is wearing a bright pink, hoodie that’s zippered up the front, over a black knitted T-shirt and black, stretch exercise slacks. She has prepared a 100% toasted whole wheat bagel (10g of protein per bagel) with a vine-ripened red tomato and two slices of fried Butterball smoked, cured, dark and white turkey bacon. Lunch will include 6 oz. of fat-free, light, strawberry yogurt from Publix grocery store. My beverage of choice today will be a 12.oz. bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale from Dunstan, England. According to the label, this legendary beer owes its name to William the Conqueror’s son, Robert, builder of the ‘New Castle” of 1080.

And that’s all I have observed about today’s lunch.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page