What's the Story?

Watch and learn

Discomfort Zone

by Stephanie Piper

If there is a single trait that characterizes writers, it is that they are always watching. It is a blessing and a curse, and it is the principal reason that going out to lunch with a writer is exhausting. Writers want to know why that woman at the next table jumps every time a cell phone rings and whether that toddler with the distinguished, graying-at-the-temples man is his grandchild or the fruit of a late marriage to a trophy wife. And if so, where is she? Oh, here she comes. Blonde, thin, mid-30s, carrying the designer diaper bag. Now, what is she ordering? Not a sandwich, surely. Not with that figure. Could she possibly be his daughter? No, not with the look that just passed between them.  

Writers want to know the story, and we're not talking big picture here. Never mind that most people would dismiss this obsession with detail as unhealthy curiosity. Never mind that it's not very interestingâ"at least in its present formâ"to anyone else. The story is the center, the holy ground on which writers stand. It survives when everything else is gone. And it is only discovered by watching.

Watchfulness is a blessing, because you miss nothing. And, watchfulness is a curse, because you see everything, including a lot of things you would really rather not know. Someone called it a trick of mind that you're born with, and I have come to believe that this is true. I think you can teach someone to write with clarity, just as you can teach someone to sketch passably and to play an acceptable piano sonata. I do not believe you can teach someone to watch.  

I don't know when I was first aware of watching, and listening, as if my life depended on it. I remember sitting on the stairs peering down at my parents' parties, studying the arriving guests and straining to hear the conversation from the living room. At family holiday gatherings, when the dishes were cleared away and the grownups lingered at the table, I would make myself invisible in a corner and continue my research. Who are they? , I wondered, although I knew all their names. Who are they, really ?

It is the question that lies at the heart of every story, real or imagined. It is the reason writers watch, and eventually, it is the reason they write.

I thought about watchfulness as I walked around campus on a recent graduation day. Commencement is a series of visual vignettes, living snapshots of people en route to a defining moment in their lives, black robes flapping in the May breeze. There are clusters of parents in pastel, new-for-the-occasion dresses and carefully chosen ties. There are professors in velvet-trimmed academic gowns and that Ph.D. headgear that always looks slightly goofy. Here in Knoxville, there are cellophane wrapped bouquets of orange and white tulips and everywhere, there are cameras.

The real pictures, of course, will not make it into anyone's digital archive or wall montage. The truth of the day is in its quicksilver moments, and it was one of these that caught me off guard as I sat in a cavernous auditorium and sniffled my way through â“Pomp and Circumstance.â”

He must have been 40-something, tall and grave. His rented robe fit him well, and his mortarboard was on straight, not cocked at a jaunty angle like those of his younger classmates. In addition to a degree, he had won an award. He looked astonished when his name was called, and then, as he made his way back to his seat, he examined the plaque and shook his head ever so slightly and smiled a shy and private smile. â“Imagine this,â” he seemed to say. â“Imagine me, doing this.â”

There are those who, studying the universe, conclude that God is a mathematician. I'm hopeless at math, so I prefer the view expressed in a Yiddish proverb. God created us, it states, because He loves stories.


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