A friend of mine, who is also both a writer and an actor, wrote this piece about people-watching over on her blog the other day. In it she describes the people she saw at a local coffee shop one afternoon. She mentioned how useful such a practice can be for both the writer and the actor.
I have always agreed with this. Yet as you can see from the comment I left on the post, I am not always diligent in doing so.
You may be wondering how a person can “slack off” in their people watching. It’s very simple; I can become so put off by humanity that I have a tendency to enter a symbolic isolation chamber in my mind. Part of this is because, as you all know, I am an introvert. Introverts like to visit the inner world of our own thoughts more often than others. Normal.
Yet the other reason for this practice may not be as useful, or even as healthy.
In a sense, I can anesthetize myself to others. I can be aware that people are sitting around me, walking by me, and even talking. I can’t shut them out to the point that I am unaware of their presence. (Though I certainly wish I had that power at times.) Yet at such times they are more like flies to me, and I am not sure that is doing me any favors.
Take Saturday afternoon. I was visiting my county’s fair. It was daytime so it wasn’t mad-crowded yet, but it was well attended. I don’t have social anxiety so I didn’t feel in danger and I didn’t feel judged. I did however feel, as I often do in such situations, that little good could come of me being particularly observant of the humanity around me. I walked through the crowds, responding if I had to, speaking to give my order at the lunch stand, but otherwise concentrating on my own thoughts, or on talking to the small detachment of family members that were with me.
Not only was I not engaging the strangers, (something I virtually never do) I almost wasn’t acknowledging them.
Is the inner world of my mind so fascinating? Again, I only wish that were true. Half the thoughts were in fact anxious ones, I dare say. Such is how I am lately. But it is as though sometimes my own thoughts, even the mundane or the troublesome are more comfortable than the actions of the world around me. Part of it, as I said, is introversion, which is fine. But I begin to wonder if part of it is a result of having given up on most of what is “out there.”
Not that I don’t ever people watch or read stories about people. I do. But can a writer truly succeed in his mission to relate to readers when so often he retreats inward when surrounded by them? Am I doing myself a disservice by doing so as often as I do? At times I suspect that I am.
For one doesn’t have to talk to people in order to gain story ideas or come to a greater understanding of how people behave and think. That, indeed, defeats the purpose of people-watching. Yet if a writer proceeds as though regular people are usually a nuisance with which to be dealt, as opposed to a source of imagination to be mined, is his work lessened? Surely even Salinger in all of his reclusive solitude at least observed the human condition once in a while, even if he didn’t take part in it much.
I hope none of you believes I stay locked in a room, avoiding the sunshine and other people. I’m not a hermit, I assure you. Yet for someone with not one but two artistic pursuits that involve creating and relating to people, do I not look at people enough? Or have I a reasonable equivalent to people-watching when I contemplate them through the stories of others, and the news of the world around me? I suppose only time, and the quality of my fiction will tell.