I was at a coffee shop waiting for a friend when I saw them on the other side of the window. Four women, I guessed, judging by the pumps, sandals and stilettos. The cafe’s blinds blocked me from seeing the rest of their bodies. Four women in the cafe parking lot, standing in a semi-circle, talking.
They got my attention. But why?
The Life of a Writer
Writing is difficult work, though, on paper, it seems the easiest thing to do. Sit down at a desk, pull out your device or notebook and go into the playground of your imagination. Swing on the swings, slide on the slide, feel the wind on your face and the sun on your skin. Come away with a story. Come away invigorated.
As anyone who’s ever had to write an assignment, memo, email or story can attest, writing is a lot more like going into the playground of your imagination, trying to swing on the swing, but instead falling off and skinning your knee.
Like trying to slide on the slide, but instead going down head first and hurting your neck. Like feeling the wind on your face—until its icy chill makes you lose your breath. Like feeling the sun on your skin and noticing that it burns your flesh.
Anytime I can take note of people’s behaviour, words, patterns and interactions, I watch and record it. Writing, after all, is the truth of human behaviour and emotion wrapped in the pretty paper of fiction and genre.
So I watched the women. The shoes told me it was either a business meeting or they were heading to work afterwards. No sneakers or flip-flops here. The shoes came at the ends of stockinged feet and crisply-pressed trousers.
The semi-circle they stood in indicated a personal space where the women were comfortable with each other, but there were no besties in the group. Four women, standing still—no hugs, no touching. I took notes and kept watching.
A few moments later, the feet turned to something coming up behind them. I leaned forward. The circle broke apart and, as they created space, I saw another set of feet, a set of men’s shoes, a man’s slacks. He strode into the middle of the group, and then the most extraordinary thing happened.
The group re-formed their semi-circle, but it was tighter, closer. The realization was static along my skin. Whomever the man was, he was the glue of the group. Whomever the man was, he was universally liked by the group.
I knew it. The feet told me.
The women moved closer when he came into the group. His mere presence was enough to reduce the radius of their personal bubbles. Their toes pointed his way, meaning he had their full attention.
I was dying to know more about this man, but how would I start that conversation? “Excuse me, sir, but the feet of these women are a rich conversation about their relationship with each other and you. Could you tell me more?”
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
But watching people—measuring their words and actions—I’m certain, is the key to not only to writing, but unlocking the universe. When we notice the gap between what they say and how they behave, then quiet ourselves to watch closer, we see the story that lives in the gap. In that moment, we become all powerful because we are given a chance, a moment to make a decision and further that story.
Not all of us want to be writers, not all of us want to be published authors, but all of us—all of us—are storytellers. It begins the moment we open our eyes and tell ourselves about our day and the people in our lives.
“I love my job.”
“I wish my mother wasn’t so mean to me.”
Through it all, the words we say, the times we decide on silence, the moments we choose action or inaction, we tell our secrets and reveal ourselves to the world. And if we are quiet, if we are respectfully attentive, the world opens up and shows the hearts and hopes of the people around us.
And suddenly, we are privy to realizations, like I was on another day, at a gas station. I stood in line and saw that the man arguing with the cashier. He wasn’t being a jerk. He was desperately trying to hide the fact he couldn’t read the papers she put in front of him. He was hoping if he blustered enough, she’d let him go, and he could leave with his secret intact.
As he walked away, dejected and trying to ward off the glares of the irate customers behind him, I looked at him, smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Some days, huh?”
It was enough to make him smile. At that moment, I hoped that my action was enough to jar the nightmare story going on in his head about who he was and the value he held.
We're All Storytellers
Not all of us will be writers, but all of us are storytellers, all of us are story-listeners. If we quiet ourselves and watch and listen, we hear the stories we tell ourselves and we witness the stories other people hold about themselves.
Through it all, we will have those moments where we can step in, where something as inconsequential as a smile or opening a door, evolves into something greater, morphs into an act of kindness that opens up someone else’s world, gives them a chance to breathe, and perhaps, quiet themselves to hear the stories they whisper to themselves and the world around them.
Natasha Deen is a 2018 Capital City Press Featured Writer and she’s running workshops and events to help you become a better writer—free to attend with your library card. Check out what’s coming up in our events calendar.