My mother wrote in a journal: “Told my dad, many Christmases ago, as he swung from chandeliers with a new Polaroid and rest of family huddled on couch and said cheese for two hours, you either record having fun or you have fun.”
After a sprawling, multi-episode New Years weekend on Cape Cod this year, it occurred to me for the thousandth time that no one at the party or any of the surrounding events would have guessed by my behavior or demeanor that I am any kind of writer. I don’t watch events, I do events. When I’m around people, I am shouting, hugging, laughing, hamming. (And on that Cape Cod weekend, oystering, brush-clearing, trail-running and polar-plunging.)
I am not there to observe and report. I’m there to live. I observe in arrears and report, maybe. For a magazine story, I once worked out at quarterback for a women’s professional football team. When the preseason was finished, it was hard to leave them, and the coach could tell. “You can practice with us anytime you like,” he offered.
I’ve known many writers—my dad was one of them—who stand back. Who watch, and listen. Even in conversation, you can tell the record button is on. They know their job. I knew one famous writer who sat at the restaurant table with his chair 15 degrees diagonal, so he could watch us out of the corner of his eye—not listening to the conversation, as much as eavesdropping on it.
I’ve always felt those kinds of writers have one up on me: They surely pick up more details than I do, and they tuck them away and they make many kinds of observations that I can’t make.
But one night this week, driving home from a dinner with friends at which I’d participated in full throat when I might have angled my chair just a little bit and listened a little more—it also occurred to me that there’s an advantage to my way, too:
I can report from the middle of the action—not just the physical middle, but the emotional middle. And because I am in the emotional middle—a character myself—I can better trust that what I’m feeling—and whatever I am seeing and hearing, in the whirling, cacophonous maw of the moment—is what you’re feeling and seeing and hearing, too.
I don’t know that I’m right about that, but I hope I am. Because I don’t know how to do this any other way.