In Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds, there is a moment in which the main character’s father notes that her skill with physics is genetic, “like the noticing gene necessary for being a good writer.” I haven’t yet read this book – a friend quoted it to me – but I know exactly what she means. If you don’t notice things, after all, what are you going to write about? Some of my favorite parts of novels are the asides – when an author pauses from the narrative to mention the birds flying overhead or the alpine flowers blooming beside the mountain path, or the way the coffee creates a lazy Z as it floats away from the cup into the chilly morning air.
This is the sort of thing I don’t much like to write. It’s why I prefer writing plays to fiction, because in a play, it’s all dialogue, with a few stage directions thrown in for good measure. (“Ann crosses stage, hurls teapot at George.”) I have no patience for those long passages in which a character crosses his leg, stares pensively out the window, and decides it’s time to go clean the gutters, although he’s supposed to be downstairs getting ready for a party. When done well, I enjoy reading these asides. They give us a moment to collect our thoughts when the plot has been charging on, or they tell us something about the world as the author sees it. I just don’t have the patience to write them.
Instead, I write poetry. To me, poetry is all the “noticing” bits and little else. I see sixteen turkey vultures circling over a cornfield, and I can write a poem about that; I don’t have to make up a story about a man and woman having an argument in a car parked near a cornfield at which those turkey vultures happen to show up and one or both of the characters pauses to point them out. Cut to the chase, I say. Give those vultures their due, an entire poem to soar in.
The noticing gene comes out in other ways, too. Once I was visiting my long-distance boyfriend in Austin, Texas, and we were walking to his class at the university. He had just printed out a paper to turn in, and was moaning about forgetting to staple the pages together. Somehow, I just knew I could help. I cranked up my noticing gene and began scouring the ground as we walked toward his classroom building. Sure enough, I spotted it – a bright, shiny paperclip. He was delighted; I was relieved. These long-distance romances are tricky. I knew I needed to make myself seem indispensible, even magical. Need something? I’ll pull it out of thin air.
I really notice my noticing gene when I’m out with my daughter. Allison and I will be driving down University, deeply engaged in a conversation about, say, copy machines at work. We’ll pass our old house and, without prelude, she’ll say, “I can’t believe they cut it down” (a tree) and I’ll reply, “I know. It looks awful.” Then, without missing a beat, we’re back to the copier dilemma. Half a block later, someone will nearly rear-end the car across the intersection from us, and I’ll ask, “How is Kiersten doing?” and she’ll give me an update on her friend who, you guessed it, got rear-ended on the way to the vet.
I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t “noticing,” it’s ADHD! But I don’t think so, because our tangential conversations spring from something we’ve seen out the window, over our shoulders, out of the corners of our eyes. And when you’re with someone you know well, you get the great satisfaction of speaking shorthand. I happen to love birds in flight – the way starlings swirl around in the sky like synchronized swimmers, the way geese practice their southern flight by forming broken Vs in early fall, the way, yes, the turkey vultures ride the warm air currents as if for the sheer joy of it. If, when I’m out with Allison, I catch a glimpse of any of these birds, all I have to say is, “I love it when they do that,” and I know she knows what I’m talking about, even if just moments before I was launched into a diatribe about the ridiculous cost of medical books or the hair-raising plot of last week’s “Mad Men.”
It might go without saying that one thing writers notice, often to their great pain, is typos. Just last night I was reading a novel by my favorite new novelist, Jon Hassler, and came across this one: “Kathleen and Jane were the most tightly reigned girls in town.”I know it’s easy to confuse reign (to rule a kingdom) with rein (to control a horse), but this typo evoked a very peculiar image of two teenagers strapped to a throne.
Apart from that clunker, which his editor ought to have caught, Hassler knew what he was doing. He noticed how people’s faces sagged when they were bored, and how their cheeks reddened when they encountered the person they secretly loved. He not only had the noticing gene, he knew how to use it, describing perfectly everything he noticed.
I’m not saying that people with this gene, this tendency, notice everything. You could show me any number of photos of fields or houses between Dubuque and Davenport and I would have no idea where they were taken. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but blindness. Put me in a new environment, though, and I’ll start cataloging everything, whether I want to or not. If I can carry some of it back to my writing, so much the better.