Tell me 5 things you notice today.
My guest today, Dan Passamaneck, is going to take a slightly different angle on this question and will give his five reasons why it’s important to notice what’s going on around you. If you want to add to his list, feel free.
1. It’s interesting. Noticing things helps me through life’s boring moments. Every so often I’m stuck killing time. I may be commuting, on a layover, whatever – I’m just waiting for the next official “thing.” But if there are people around me doing pretty much the same as I am, somebody typically gets into an argument or has a strange quirk or is just somehow provocative. It’s fun to watch these people. It helps me pass the time. I see things all the time like this that I could never have imagined on my own; other things happen that are so incredibly hackneyed that I’m hesitant to write about them for fear of coming off as unimaginative. I also think that attentiveness makes my writing more interesting to read. I’m more confident as a writer when I’ve seen what I’m talking about with my own eyes. That confidence supports a more vigorous narrative, which makes for more interesting reading. At the same time, my world expands immeasurably when I keep my eyes open, and that in turn makes my writing richer and more varied. Finally, writing as clearly as I can about my day-to-day experiences life helps make it possible to share them with others as well. These events become part of another person’s life. Honestly, I think that’s pretty interesting all on its own.
2. It’s inspirational. What happens out on the streets is poetry to me. Yes, most of it is pretty awful poetry, but some of it actually turns out to be very moving. I’m regularly seeing things that make me feel compelled to start writing immediately, just so I don’t forget the details. Phrases and figures of speech come to my mind that have never occurred to me before, because I’m seeing things I’ve never seen and they demand an ongoing expansion of my descriptive faculties. I’m inspired thematically by the sheer range and intensity of things that happen all around me, and I’m inspired by the technical challenge of reducing these experiences in all their fullness to a static written format. The exercise of attentiveness has been inspirational for me on a personal level, too. All kinds of things I’ve noticed have moved me very deeply – both in positive ways, and very much otherwise. But they aroused something within me, encapsulating some shade of truth with such eloquence that writing about them almost felt like a spiritual act. When I’m writing like that, the words seem to write themselves. This is the most powerful form of artistic inspiration I have experienced.
3. It improves my writing. I consider this to be true both in terms of mechanics and in terms of resonance. On a mechanical level, training myself to notice things has (big surprise) sensitized me to new things to write about, coaxing me out of comfort zones and into areas that otherwise would not have emerged in my work. I don’t have to make things up, or when I do, they’re made up out of something that had been stuck on the tip of my tongue until I’d come back to it a dozen or more times. That evolving appreciation for the story makes the process of writing more enjoyable and more fulfilling for me. Events seem more meaningful and I find more to say about them. To me, this feels like better writing. I guess I’m open to alternate viewpoints on that one.
4. It’s just handy. Putting aside the almost tangible benefits that I derive from noticing things as a writer, it’s a useful skill to have in general. I can be really absent-minded sometimes, and noticing some random detail can help me later on to remember something of critical importance, like where the car is parked or how to get home after a party. This lets me come off looking like a hero, even if only on a very modest scale. Names, recipes, directions, the news… there’s just so much out there to pay attention to, even excluding all the things I might want eventually to write about. People are flattered if you notice what they’ve got on their office walls or on their desks. People are appreciative when you draw their attention to the special tray of good pastries hiding behind the counter at the coffee shop. The world is full of things worth noticing, large and small, for both practical and frivolous reasons. When I keep my eyes open I almost always see something that I’m glad, eventually, that I noticed.
5. It helps me write more meaningfully. I care about my impact on the planet, and what my country is doing around the world, and the significance of my work, and also about my next door neighbors and the stranger in line behind me at the post office. All these relationships ultimately connect to each other. When I’m able to keep them all in view and to gauge my own actions accordingly, I feel that I’m doing my best as a person and (if I’m writing at the time) as a writer. Noticing things, and then working them over until I’ve written them up properly, helps me to identify big themes in small events. That’s a good way for me to remain mindful of whatever is really going on around me, and incorporate it into my life as a whole and into my writing in particular. If I do it right, this holistic connection I sense between the small story and the big picture comes through to the reader and becomes something the reader can share with me – which is itself yet another connection, overlaid upon all the rest. I consider this to be “meaningful” writing: writing that says something sufficiently real to forge a relationship with the author and a change in the reader. Affecting these changes in the reader is one of my chief goals as an author. To these ends, I find that noticing isn’t just useful – it’s indispensable. Lucky for me, it’s become such an ingrained habit that I couldn’t give up if I had to. It’s too much fun and I get too much out of it. I like keeping my sensors wide open. It does take a bit of energy, but I find it’s really worth it.
DANIEL PASSAMANECK is a California mensch. Born at the lull between the Baby Boom and Generation X, he grew up in the San Fernando Valley as the son of a professor of talmud and a children’s librarian. He started writing poems and jokes in the second grade and has been using words as playground and therapy ever since. He received a BA from Penn in communications behavior, took a year off as an intern for Knots Landing, and then attended Loyola Law School in Los Angeles for his JD. He then moved to San Francisco and practiced civil litigation for seven years before parting ways with the legal profession, citing unreconcilable differences. He transitioned to fundraising for a local animal shelter, and then moved to a position administering grant programs for the State Bar. “It’s a good gig. I give away money and everybody has to be nice to me.” Writing for his own gratification, he started blogging as an experiment and now has been posting essays, stories, recipes, poems, photographs and assorted fluff to his site, The Chucklehut, since 2002. A selection of these essays – true stories from public transit, the streets, and the stores – is being polished up as an anthology, so if you know a publisher who wants to get in on the ground floor, drop him a line. Dan lives within earshot of the San Francisco Bay foghorns with his wife Kelly, who is a guide dog trainer and instructor, and also with their son Zachary, who is unbearably cute.