Becoming A People Watcher

To achieve a fully dimensional character, fictional or real, a writer must watch people closely, much more closely than the average person would. He or she looks especially for anything unusual or distinct about the person or persons involved, but does not ignore what is ordinary and typical. The writer then reports, in as interesting a way as possible, these poses, posturings, habitual gestures, mannerisms, appearances, glances. Not that the writer limits observations to these, but these frequently appear in creative nonfiction writing. Here are some examples of acute observation at work in the writings of McPhee, Faulkner, Steinem, Talese, Pritchett, and Rhodes.

In a straight-backed chair near the doorway to the kitchen sat a young man with long black hair, who wore a visored red leather cap that had darkened with age. His shirt was coarse woven and had eyelets down a V neck that was laced with a thong. His trousers were made of canvas, and he was wearing gum boots. His arms were folded, his legs were stretched out, he had one ankle over the other, and as he sat there he appeared to be sighting carefully past his feet, as if his toes were the outer frame of a gunsight and he could see some sort of target in the floor. When I entered, I had said hello to him, and he had nodded without looking up. He had a long, straight nose and high cheekbones in a deeply tanned face that was, somehow, gaunt. I had no idea whether he was shy or hostile.

John McPhee

The Pine Barrens

The Geisha's mass of blue-black lacquered hair encloses the painted face like a helmet, surmounts, crowns the slender body's ordered and ritual posturing like a grenadier's bearskin busby, too heavy in appearance for that slender throat to bear, the painted fixed expressionless face immobile and immune also above the studied posturing; yet behind that painted and lifeless mask is something quick and alive and elfin; or more than elfin: puckish; or more than puckish even: sardonic and quizzical, a gift for comedy and more: for burlesque and caricature for a sly and vicious revenge on the race of men.

William Faulkner "Impressions of Japan," Esquire (October 1973)

She had shared all the vilification and praise without ever emerging in public as an individual. I was eager to meet her, but all her other interviewers said Mrs. Nixon had put them straight to sleep.

She was sitting in the front of the plane, freckled hands neatly folded, ankles neatly crossed, and smiling a public smile as a sleek young staff man sat me next to her. I didn't want to ask the questions she had answered so blandly and often about her husband ("I just think he'd make a wonderful president") or politics ("You'll have to ask Dick about that"), but to ask about herself.

Gloria Steinem

"Patricia Nixon Flying" Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

The two blondes, who seemed to be in their middle thirties, were preened and polished, their matured bodies softly molded within tight dark suits.

They sat, legs crossed, perched on the high bar stools. They listened to the music. Then one of them pulled out a Kent and Sinatra quickly placed his gold lighter under it and she held his hand, looked at his fingers: they were nubby and raw, and the pinkies protruded, being so stiff from arthritis that he could barely bend them. He was, as usual, immaculately dressed. He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles. He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week.

Gay Talese

"Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Esquire (April 1966)

But, that social life. Where do we all meet? At shops and pubs, of course, but mainly in the street market, the melting-pot of all inner London districts. It is mostly run by the Cockneys, whose aim in life is to shout and play-act at stalls everywhere between Shoreditch and Soho and beyond. "You're in England. Stick to language, carntcher? Speak up! What is it, love?" That final phrase is imposed to heal all wounds. For the market we are not Mr. or Mrs., Sir or Madam, or even Mum and Dad, but, in the thick wash of sentiment, "love," "ducks," "dear," and "darling" for the women and "guv" for the men. We are people who are used to being rained on and jeered at;

the street market is the heart of any London village—and town planners dare not do away with it or impose a cross-channel elegance.

V. S. Pritchett

"Pritchett's London" Sophisticated Traveler, New York Times (March 1983)

And all the while we listen to the cowboy come on over the radio like Red Barber announcing the Yankees as the other hunters rack up their coyotes for the afternoon: "THERE HE COMES, LES, OUT THAT SOUTH FENCE—GO SOUTH, LES! GO SOUTH, GO SOUTH, HE'S CROSSED THE ROAD, HE'S IN THAT SOIL BANK IN THE NEXT SECTION, BETTER GO WEST AND HEAD HIM OFF, LES, JOHNNY WAGONBLAST, WHERE ARE YOU? YOU OUT ON THE WEST ROAD? COME NORTH, JOHNNY, HE'S IN THE NORTHWEST QUARTER, COME NORTH," and Harold nudging me, Harold in love with his radio, "See, I told you he was a real good boy, regular sportscaster," and then the sound, sweet jealous sound now, of the dogs dropped from Johnny's truck, and cowboy's back on the horn, "HE'S GOT HIM, JOHNNY WAGONBLAST'S GOT HIM, THEY GOT THE COYOTE!"

Richard Rhodes

Death All Day

Another dimension a creative nonfiction writer will not neglect is a person's dialect, accent, or colloquial speech patterns. Such detail doesn't really get to the heart of a person, but it does involve the reader more closely. Jimmy Breslin readily captures the various dialects, accents, and colloquialisms of people on his beat for the Daily News. To understand fully the next quote from one of his columns, "Give a Beggar a Horse...," all the reader needs to remember is that he always referred to his wife in his columns as The Former Rosemary Dattolico. In this portion of the column, we're with his mother-in-law, the former Rose Dattolico's mother, as she wanders through one of many supermarkets seeking out the best deals.

She stopped and began scolding a young woman from the neighborhood who came along with boxes of eighty-nine-cent paper napkins atop her shopping cart. The former Rosemary Dattolico's mother tapped the paper napkins.

"Somebody on an income of twelve thousand dollars can't afford paper napkins that cost eighty-nine cents."

The young woman said, "You're broke, a little fancy you need."

"Nonsense," the former Rosemary Dattolico's mother said. She sent the young woman back to the shelves to change the paper napkins and her ultimate advice followed the young woman. "You're cheaper off."

Creative nonfiction writers pay close and appreciative attention not only to regional and local variations on the mother tongue, they also listen and write to capture the specialized languages and jargons of the specialists among us. The writer listens carefully to the specialist's language, partly to learn enough to be able to use some of it in the narrative portions of the article or book, and partly to select quotes and partial quotes from all those the specialist may have used, in order to simulate a fuller conversation with the specialist. Up to a point, the reader doesn't mind not fully understanding the jargon or specialized language—in fact, as we've said earlier, its very obscurity lends credibility to what's being read by the nonspecialist. The writer must be careful, however, not to go beyond that point because the reader may become totally lost—perhaps never to be found again. The writer needs to give just enough to intrigue and provide credibility. It isn't necessary to explain all the jargon for the nonspecialist reader, if its purpose is to establish mood, setting, or character. Naturally, if the meaning of the specialized language is essential to understanding what follows, the meaning must somehow be conveyed as succinctly as possible, or else the piece becomes a textbook or specialist's manual.

John McPhee wrote a fascinating profile of an ecologist as she went about her field work. In this excerpt from Travels in Georgia we hear them working a swamp at night:

Silent ourselves, we pushed on into the black. Carol moved a flashlight beam among the roots of trees. She held the flashlight to her nose, because the eye can see much more if the line of sight is closely parallel to the beam. She inspected minutely the knobby waterline of the trees. Something like a sonic boom cracked in our ears. "Jesus, what was that?"


The next two slaps were even louder than the first. Carol ignored the beaver, and continued to move the light. It stopped. Out there in the obsidian was a single blue eye.

"A blue single eye is a spider," she said. "Two eyes is a frog. Two eyes almost touching is a snake. An alligator's eyes are bloody red."

Two tiny coins now came into her light.

"Move in there," she said. "I want that one."

With a throw of her hands, she snatched up a frog. It was a leopard frog, and she let him go. He was much within his range. Carol was looking for river frogs, pig frogs, carpenter frogs, whose range peripheries we were stalking. She saw another pair of eyes. The canoe moved in. Her hand swept out unseen and made a perfect tackle, thighs to knees. This was a bronze frog, home on the range____

McPhee knows that his writing gains authority not only through his use of specialist's jargon but through evidence of specialized knowledge. When we read that Carol held her flashlight up to her nose in the middle of that swamp at night, we see we're with a woman who knows her job. This evidence is reinforced when we hear the conversation about eyes in the dark, and later, the list of frogs most of us have not met.

Notice that McPhee does not tell us that the way to catch a frog is to grab it just above the knees; he shows us Carol sweeping her hand out, unseen, and tackling the frog. He can't resist describing that perfect tackle in football terms. Perhaps he should have resisted this next one, but he tells us that the frog she's tackled so nicely can be thrown back because he's not beyond the peripheries of acceptable frog wanderings; he's home on the range. Little sparks of wit like this keep people reading John McPhee. We learn all kinds of specialized knowledge in his books and articles, but it's not like the learning in a classroom—it's leavened with wit, not heavy-handed humor, but wit.

Specialized knowledge and its concomitant jargon has probably reached an all-time high in the space exploration business. Everyone has been infected by its way of shorthanding and acronymizing everything. Norman Mailer gained authority in his Of a Fire on the Moon by capturing faithfully this specialized knowledge and language. In writing about the first moon walk, he reported part of the effort this way:

...Star checks were taken. Meanwhile, Armstrong was readying the cameras and snapping photographs through the window. Now Aldrin aligned the Abort Guidance Section. Armstrong laid in the data for Program 12, the Powered Ascent Guidance. The Command Module came around again. The simulated countdown was over. They had another Stay. They powered down their systems.

In the transcript the work continues minute after minute, familiar talks of stars and Nouns, acronyms, E-memory dumps, and returns to POO where Pings may idle. They are at rest on the moon, but the dialogue is not unencumbered of pads, updata link switches and noise suppression devices on the Manned Space Flight Network relay.

Specialists are not necessarily scientific or other high-flying people; they can be specialists of any stripe. For example, William W. Warner's Pulitzer Prize—winning, Beautiful Swimmers, takes us into the far reaches of Chesapeake Bay to learn how the watermen and their crabs live. In the following excerpt, Warner works in specialized knowledge, fishing jargon, and local dialect.

"Some people are plain feared of crabs, though Lord knows they can't hurt you much."

Mike grins from one jug ear to another. "Sometimes they get to you," he says.

Indeed they do. Maine lobstermen can safely remove the much smaller numbers of lobsters found in their pots with bare hands, seizing them from the rear. Chesapeake crabbers cannot do this. Unlike the lobster, the blue crab has excellent rear vision. There are too many crabs in each pot in any case for such individual seizure. You simply plunge in with both hands and separate the tangling masses as best you can, suffering an occasional bite from a big Jimmy (male) that will make even the most hardened crabber wince. Between such bites and the constant handling of pot wire the fabric-lined "Best" rubber gloves last no more than two weeks during periods of heavy catches. "You get a hole in them," Grant adds, "the crabs will find it."

We pull up a shiny new pot set down a few days ago. It is absolutely jammed. Maybe fifty sooks (females). "New pots seem to attract females this time of year," Grant observes. "Don't know why. Ain't nobody really knows about crabs."

William Warner describes vividly for us a Chesapeake crabber's life. He accomplishes that partly through the concrete details of how a crab behaves and how the crabber works with the captured crabs; partly through sensory details like the bite; and partly through letting us hear Mike's voice through bits of captured dialog. I'm discussing these elements of language use as though the writers use them one by one. In practice, however, all these elements (and many others discussed in this book) work together, even within one paragraph. The next chapter explores captured conversations; short snatches of conversation (as in the Warner quote); quotes from letters, memoirs, journals, and the like; and words heard over the phone, radio, and television, and the powerful role they play in your writing.

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