Yesterday I attended the second meeting of a class I’m taking through Literary Cleveland, all about creative nonfiction. I’ve been interested in creative nonfiction for a while now, but actually writing it, honing a pitch, and interviewing people are all relatively new to me. I think the last time I got really into interviewing people was in third and fourth grade when I had my own family newspaper (I printed out new issues every Sunday), or maybe a few years later, when I carried an old tape recorder everywhere with me. Hang on… Maybe I’ve been interested in nonfiction for longer than I thought…
The main focus of this session of the class was observation: to be a writer, you have to be constantly observing, and– somehow– recording what you observe. I’ve heard similar advice before and taken it: I’ve kept a diary since 2011, which taught me to remember and record notable things from the day. In 2018, I didn’t journal like that as much, but in August, I started carrying around a small flip notebook with me everywhere (like an old-timey reporter! Or a cop…). It’s now very warped and almost completely filled.
It’s not fancy and is simply organized by date/place jotted at the top of each page/entry. Observations include: conversations I overheard, weird things I saw, descriptions of people, and some dumb jokes from nights out with friends (including a signed will that I am sure could totally hold up in court).
I had to get used to being the weirdo who would flip out the notebook and start scribbling at the bar, on public transit, or on my break at work. I was scared of being seen as some pretentious hipster. But what’s more pretentious, taking notes because that’s how your brain works best, or doing nothing/some other weird shit so people will think you’re cool?
I also had to get over my fear of observing “wrong”. One of the first times I took the notebook somewhere with me, I went to a bar with Patrick and one of our friends to watch the Browns game. I thought a conversation between the two of them was funny, so I scribbled it down. They were talking about a player. Our friend asked to see what I was writing, and saw that I’d written down the player’s name wrong. I’d written what I heard (knowing it was probably incorrect). He and Patrick laughed. I said, “If I needed to use this in something, I could look him up.”
Patrick: “How? Were you just gonna google all the Browns players?”
Me: “In the rest of the conversation, you guys said he was injured in 2013. So I could have used that and figured it out.”
Our friend pointed out that my writing was very messy. But I’ve found that, for me, the act of writing something out helps me remember it even without ever re-reading the notes. (There is one page that I find completely illegible though. Maybe don’t try to take notes in the dark, in a moving car, while tipsy.)
I also personally like to write down messages from signs or graffiti. Yesterday at the bookstore there was a sign with a picture of a girl reading and a giant bat flying out of a book that read: “One can find a whole new life in a book shop. People should be warned.”
Maybe. But maybe some of us like being surprised by giant bats.
Keep your eyes peeled,