Essay Three

The little things

I’ve been picturing you, since last week, with a stack of little postcards sat upon your desk. I’m hoping your eyes are sparkling a little, at the thought of making a small start towards writing the way you’ve always wanted to. And I’m wondering how many of those postcards you might have started to scrawl upon. Or whether you’ve sort of shuffled them every now and again, satisfied that you at least have them in your midst.

It’s not for me to tell you what to write about. I could give you a list of prompts - the weather, what your breakfast tastes like, describing the person you sat next to on the bus - but you know how I feel about prompts from last week’s essay and unless those little details matter to the story you want to tell, I doubt they’ll help you all that much. You see, it’s not for me to give you a set of words to pick and choose from. And it’s not for me to tell you what to observe on your postcards. That’s for you to notice, and in doing so, you might discover the depth of your own writing voice, the texture of your very own tone. But what I will say is this: when you are looking to observe, to make notes, to capture memories, look for the little things in the background, the things you might have missed before, because it’s those details that make a moment both come and stay alive.

But still, what are those details, you might ask? What on earth are you meant to be looking for? Well, again, I can’t tell you what might make for meaningful prose for you but I can tell you this. Look beyond the obvious and pay attention to the subtleties. Shift your focus off centre. Explore what’s inside. Watch the bride’s sister, or maybe even the second cousin, instead of the bride. Ignore the loudest mother at the school gates who gathers the crowds by talking endlessly about her Every Single Day and maybe watch the quiet mother instead, the one the others think is aloof but is actually just shy or tired or overwhelmed by this scene. Consider the underdogs. The shadows. The subtleties and nuances that say so much without saying anything at all.

For instance, you might notice the way... he lightly brushes those few strands of hair off her forehead, but then you might also nice the way she leans back, away from him, just a touch, an almost invisible move, but one that suggests something darkly significant in her involuntary reaction. Notice how he reaches for her hand across the table at that dinner-date-with-friends - but then how she shifts in her seat as he calls the waiter over and orders for her.

The details, then, are in the placement of a palm, in a glance that lasts no longer than a second, in the third or fourth sound you hear when you sit in the garden and close your eyes. The details are the unperceived. What most might consider unremarkable, you must, as a writer, consider quietly significant.

For when you notice the details, the little things, you notice the things that make us human. You notice how we love, how we hurt; you notice what is real. When you notice the little things, you learn to read between the lines. You learn that what is unsaid carries more weight, more depth, in its shadows, than everything else which is simply noise.

Notice the unnoticeable

In case at this point you are starting to feel frustrated, you simply want a way to put pen to paper, then here are some small ways to think about noticing the unnoticeable. These aren’t prompts so much as they are suggestions to simply find yourself in a position to have things to write about.

  • Head to a cafe alone and people watch. And eavesdrop (there; I’ve said it). Take notes on your postcard. Catch snippets of their conversation and just listen, for a moment, to the way people talk, the way dialogue actually moves. Are those pauses of contentment? Or do they simply have nothing to say? Where does one look while the other talks? Note down gestures, affectations, noisy eaters, turns of phrase.

  • Be curious and let your imagination wander. Once, I happened to be walking to the bus stop, and just so happened to be behind a guy going the same direction. He was talking on the phone and I caught him say “Love you” - but then I also watched him then kiss a woman at said bus stop just a moment later, a woman I can only assume was his other half. So then, the curious writer in me couldn’t help but wonder who it was he had been talking to on the phone - his mother, his wife, his boyfriend, the colleague with whom he’s been having an affair. So allow yourself to wonder. Allow yourself to think “What if..?” Write all of it down. Somewhere in these notes, there’ll be at least three ideas worth exploring.

  • Eavesdrop on your family (there, I’ve said it again!). I am often noting down the way my children talk to each other when they don’t think I’m around, the way they reach out for each other. Lately, I notice more and more how the older members of my family talk too; the distraction that has appeared, the stories repeated more than once without realising it. I don’t quite know what to do with this yet, other than observe it, remember it, try to figure it out.

  • Sit alone in your garden or in any outside space and close your eyes. Allow yourself to just listen for two minutes and as soon as you open your eyes, write down what you heard on a note card. The obvious might come first - the traffic, the sirens, the birds perhaps. But what else? What’s the next layer? That’s where the interesting stuff lies.

  • Look at a photograph. Study it carefully for two minutes. Then turn it over so you can no longer see it. Take a blank postcard and write down what you remember and try to include as many seemingly unremarkable details as you can. It could be your kid’s polka dot sock balled up in the corner of that otherwise perfect room shot; the tiny little specks of crumbs left on your mother’s lower lip in that family photo taken at her birthday brunch; the strange shadow bouncing off the kitchen window; the red light in the distance in that selfie you took on your way to work; the boy with his head down on the bus. Force yourself to see what you might not have seen before and in those details, there will be seeds of writing ideas ready to explore.

In his memoir The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood writes about the importance of noticing the little details of life. He writes:

It is details that make a story personal. Stories are made of details; we snag on them. Details are the what, or maybe we should say the whatness of stories. In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do.
— James Wood

And I suppose this brings me right back to what I wrote in my very first essay, about the idea that being a writer requires you to be open. It requires you to be porous, to be aware of the world in deeper, shifting and quietly significant ways that might otherwise pass by entirely unnoticed. It requires you to feel with every inch of your skin. It’s what makes you want to distill the breaking points of your pain or the uplift of your happiness into simple words on a page, words that might move and connect with those that chance upon them, because they happen to see a little bit of themselves in what you have written.

I would like for you to take from this the simple lesson that making notes and observations on a postcard is not futile; nor is it a waste of time; nor a gimmick. It’s a way to learn to observe, to stretch your skills of observation - skills that will make you a writer. It’s a way for you to slow down in an intentional, purposeful way; to encourage you to savour tastes, listen closer, inhale deeper. It’s a way for you to take a moment to remember the textures of your every day and to turn those textures into memories, stories, moments you might one day share.

So I guess all I am saying is: spend a while looking. Spend a while remembering. Look for the whatness even in your most ordinary of days, for it always there. All you need to do is slow down a moment, to catch it, to take it in.

And then write it down. Write it down before you forget.

Notes to remember

Shape your observations both of the present and of the past. It doesn’t matter what you write down as long as it has meaning to you - it’s not so much about what happens, as it is about what it means. And these moments don’t have to be life-changing in a big way, but in a small, stirring way. It might simply be as small as a child’s warming hug or a smile from a stranger who happens to pass you by - anything that moved you a little. And what matters more is that you practice writing daily, making notes, stretching your capacity to express yourself through words. The more you do it, the easier it will become.

Next week

An essay on a life lived in pictures - using photographs to spark memories and turn them from images into words


Postcards Home

On postcards; or, staying in touch

Mini-memories, in note form

The little things

A life lived in pictures

The beauty of the ordinary