“All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” [Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project]
This quote is used as an epigraph at the beginning of Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, and gives the reader a hint at what is coming, a glimpse into lives of a variety of New Yorkers we’ll never meet, never know, never understand, never appreciate. Yet through his writing McCann gives us entrée into the closely held secrets, treasures, sorrows and joys of strangers.
In my travels, and even in my daily wanderings – to restaurants, and 7-11s, and Starbucks, and workplaces – I pass people: in elevators, in subways, in waiting lines, and traffic snarls, in bank queues, at checkout stands, at plays, concerts and public gatherings. And if I am not preoccupied with where I have to be in ten minutes, or guilt over the donut I ate that wasn’t healthy for me, or what I will wear to a dinner party tonight, or the need to buy new tires for the car because mine are wearing thin, or the birthday card I forgot to send, then I look around me and marvel at the people I will never know. And even more than that, I sometimes marvel at the people whom I do know, but don’t really know deep down where the sorrows are lodged.
I have thought, more than once, that if I were a teacher of creative writing, perhaps a teacher of “How to Write an Essay’ or “How to Write a Short Story,” that I might task the students to go to some public place, book store coffee bar, library reading room, doctor’s office waiting room, food court in a large mall, airport departure gate, a viewing platform at Niagara Falls, a lecture on goal setting, you name it. And while there, they are to observe a person, or perhaps a couple conversing. You might overhear snippets of conversation. Take careful note of their apparel, demeanor, grooming, accoutrements (back pack, gym bag, type of shoes, name brand of shoes or handbag or man purse, type of wallet or watch, or cell phone) and from this observation write an essay or short story about that person or couple, about what their life is like, about what might be going through their minds, about their backstory, about their hopes, dreams, their resignation, or their despair. Then, we would all come back together again in a week or two, and share the essays, and comment on what we thought.
It would be instructive, certainly about the mechanics of writing, the sentence structure, point of view (first person? third person?), imagery, word choices, use of active or passive voice, etc. But more than that, it would get the students out of their focus on “me,” away from texting on cell phones, and self-absorption, self-loathing, obsessing over body image, Facebook postings, and the like – at least for a short interval. And their very choice of subject would be telling too. Would they choose to write about an older person on a park bench, a barista in a coffee house, someone their own age, a person who looks like their grandfather, a child, a person with a dog, a jogger on a nature trail, a co-worker four cubicles away, a fellow commuter they often pass in a parking structure? Or a visitor to their church service on Sunday, sitting a pew away, where they could observe the person at length during the sermon and the singing of hymns? And as we proceeded with this exercise, we would all get to know one another better in the unfurling of the assignment. A noble exercise in preparing a human stew, flavored with the imagined or projected hopes, dreams and disappointments of twenty or thirty others. And hopefully there would be some humor too, as we laughed at human foibles, our own included, and tried to put life into some sort of container so it could be stopped for a moment in time, given meaning, if only through the imagination and musings of others. Many believe that life is an interconnected web, a nexus of teeming life, connected by invisible threads that tie us all together. There is that story of Indra’s web, a story I have alluded to before, about a magnificent jeweled net with a jewel at every node, each jewel reflecting all the other jewels. Is that what this exercise might be? The crafting of a jeweled net, with each student’s story and each person’s backstory reflecting in the jewel that is the student next to them?
It I were the teacher for this exercise, I would like to think that in some small way, I had caused the students to “stop and smell the roses,” or at least stop and observe their surroundings. And maybe this would cause them to do it again, with regularity even, observing life in a more intentional and studied way. Because if any of the students were aspiring writers, and surely there would be one or two, then learning attention to details would serve them well.
Well, I am not the teacher of a writing class, but in a way I am my own teacher for my own writing, because I have never taken any writing classes. And while I often do the observing and play a mind game with ascribing meaning, feelings and some imagined life story to those I observe, I haven’t actually crafted any stories, written down my observations or fanciful thoughts. Perhaps I should take my own advice. I think back on another essay I wrote about a clergyman who opined, in a sermon, that we should all be seekers of “wow.” So if that is the case, what sorts of “wow” might I intuit, observe, or capture through close observation of my fellows? Perhaps, I’ll let you know later how I do.