Last night, a reader of my first two novels said something about them that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since: “Well observed.” He then explained what he meant.
“When I was in high school,” he said, “my art teacher said that about of one of my drawings. I asked what that meant, and the teacher said, ‘It expresses reality. You pay close attention to things, and it shows in your work.’ I’ve never forgotten that compliment. Dave, both of your books are so realistic about how people really are.”
I was moved. Even if I put my characters in a very obvious fantasy situation, as I did in Von Lagerhaus, or I feature a character whose decisions defy “common sense” as in See John Play, I want my observations about people to ring true.
I once read a quote – it might have been in Sol Stein’s classic “On Writing,” a must-read for any aspiring author. Or possibly, it was Steve Almond. It went something like this: “If you’re a writer, you write every waking moment. You never stop observing, thinking, composing, editing. All of life is story, and you are always thinking about how to tell it.”
Last July, I did something most every writer must do – particularly those like me with school-aged kids: I got a job. A demanding one. I’ve often had to deal with situations that are way bigger than me. I’ve often had to deal with people at their very worst – and sometimes, that’s included me. During this period, I’ve felt sorry for myself more than my share because I just don’t have the time or energy to create the next story.
Then last night, this guy says something about my books that has been jolting me ever since.
I know some people who call themselves observers of life. They’re able to spend a fair amount of time on the sidelines, watching others dive into the mud and get dirty. There may be some value in that; I don’t sit in judgment.
But maybe some kinds of observations can only come from diving into the mud and getting dirty. Perhaps, stories are best sharpened through the lens of difficult experience. After all, for those of us who like military history, what more compelling read than a well-told account from the pens of the soldiers who fought the battles?
I know a man who lived through a huge dose of difficulty as an undercover detective. It’s left its mark on him. Can he ever write about the struggle between good and evil in our cities – and the struggle within a man.
Maybe I should count this season of my own professional striving and struggle – time away from the pen – as a literary blessing.