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Writing what you know
Writing what you know

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2.2 Collecting and selecting

Writers are always on the alert for potential material. A notebook is an essential tool for any writer and has several functions. These range from the jotting down of observations while you’re out and about to an account of daily events, your rants and raves, ideas for poems, single words, clippings from newspapers, responses to books or poems you’ve read, notes from research, all kinds of ‘gathering’. Your notebook is for you, and it needs to contain whatever helps you or fuels your writing.

A major source of potential material is your own life – what you see, experience, think, and feel. Therefore, it is important to go about your daily business with your eyes open and all your other senses similarly alert. Accumulate details about the world around you. For instance, using an imaginary scenario, you might notice how the man along the road twitches his curtains, how he wears colour co-ordinated clothes, usually but not always green. Note the melancholic tone of his voice and how he goes to the post office every Monday at 9.30 am, accompanied by his neighbour who often wears a purple sari. You might note how they walk faster as they pass the graffiti on the factory wall and often smile at the ‘Elvis lives’ slogan that someone has daubed on the adjoining fence. You might note how, at the post office, they both chat to a man with a white Scottie, a dog who snarls at most passers-by when he is tied to the railings outside the shop, but not at the man and his neighbour.

By noting such details you are collecting materials that you might use later in your writing. In the imaginary scenario above, we have almost formed a narrative. At times you might do this, at other times you might be more arbitrary and fragmented in what you gather, writing down a range of dissimilar observations: the weather, a character description, an overheard turn of phrase. You don't need to make complete sentences or connect it all into a sequence; you could make a list of bullet points. In whatever form, collecting serves to revive a certain detailed way of seeing the world: how you might have grasped the world as a child.

Perception is always a selective faculty. You will not be able to see all and everything anew each and every day. However, you can use tactics to keep yourself alert: cross over the road and walk on a different side, or sit in a chair that you don't usually use. It is important to develop an investigative attitude to your own environment, to look at things from a slightly different angle, and to search for the previously unnoticed. Eventually, when coming to write your story or poem, you will realise that, like perception, writing is also selective. You will pick the details to be included and excluded: which detail acts as a useful repetition, and which detail might be redundant. You can't pick and choose if you haven't gathered enough information in the first place.

In our scenario above, for instance: the man at the post office with the dog might have fluffy white whiskers just like his white Scottie – this is a relatively significant and amusing detail. The same man might wear a plain-coloured tie, which is less interesting information. Each piece of writing that you work on will demand its own level and type of detail. Details attain significance, for you and consequently for your reader, not just through being dramatic or unusual. Often they will attain significance because they are being noticed for the first time, because a usual or habitual perception has shifted. For instance, returning to the scenario above, every day you might walk past the graffiti on the factory wall, considering it to be an inane and messy scrawl, if you notice it at all. Then one day you see a sunrise painted behind the letters, or you might see ‘Elvis lives’ and realise for the first time that these words are formed from the same letters (anagrams), or that the yellow lettering matches the colour of the bedding flowers just planted by the council, or you might have a flashback of the bare concrete behind the graffiti and what the wall used to be like. It is these shifts in the way you see your familiar world that revive it. In this way writing is a process of scrutinising, looking closely at things, and then taking the observations onto a new level of perception, one in which you understand your world just a little more.

Some of the observational detail collected in your notebook might seem mundane and indiscriminate, its interest and significance not fully known even to you. Some of it might be more focused on something you are working on – an observation of a certain place or type of place. For instance, you may have set a story at a swimming pool and need to remind yourself of the smell of chlorine and the strange acoustics. Whether apparently insignificant or more focused, there is no prescription for the sort of observations you should make; they will always be personal to the individual writer.