the voyeur as writer

JOURNAL THAT

a guide to writing

cynthia gregory

 Journaling isn’t, as they say, rocket science. You don’t have to be especially creative or hold an advanced degree to do it.. The barest minimum skill you must own to successfully journal is to be an unrepentant voyeur.  Oh sure, you can go at it with purpose, review your day and record your thoughts, deeds, wishes, regrets, passions, traffic backups, lunchroom gossip, career conundrums, or epic visions. This is all very useful but as you can see, you are limited to one specific experience: your own.

Have you ever run across a photo album at an antique or thrift store? I adore old photos; especially the black and white ones with the little scalloped edges. I love to study the faces, wonder what their lives were like, who they loved, what they cared about. Photos are so wonderful because they record a single, simple moment in time. There is a girl in a light-colored dress. There is a dog. A clapboard house. A black car. There are no add-ons. There are no subtractions. The camera capturing a scene is emotionally blank, it just records the picture that appears in the lens. The best journaling does this too.

What you can also do – and actually what I whole heartedly recommend that you try – is to observe the world you inhabit not as if you were the master of it, but as if you are a camera. No feelings of good or bad, right or wrong, but impersonally. It’s good practice to have a regular place to write, but it’s also good to mix it up a bit. If you’re not in the habit of eating alone, go to a restaurant and bring your journal. Is there a waterfront park that you are especially drawn to? Book yourself out for half a day and take your journal along for the ride. Take a ferry boat across the water, park yourself on a bench at the mall, tuck into a table at the newest, hippest coffee house, and bring your journal as your sole companion. Draw it out with a flourish. Observe your surroundings. Dip your head. Listen to your heartbeat for a minute, and then write. Write about the rich detail of the scene around you. No aspect is too small to notice, not one so big you can’t break it into pieces and focus on a part of it. Who is sitting around you? What are they eating, and how do they approach their food? Do they savor each flavor or do they shovel it in with gusto? Is that nanny with the toddler a gentle grandma, or is she a young immigrant with an interesting accent? Details.

We live in a voyeur culture. Strictly speaking, we’re not talking voyeur here in a lurid, creepy way.  It used to be that a voyeur was a guy who skulked around and peered into ladies’ bedroom windows. Now everyone is famous, and everyone has a Facebook page. Privacy and solitude have become quaint ideas – artifacts of another century. In the age of reality shows, underwear models, celebrity wannabes, and You Tube, the very idea of privacy is an antique notion. It’s all about the details, baby! Not that I’m suggesting you sink so low as to reveal all. Not at all. I’m just saying look around. Notice the world around you. It’s bright, it’s wired, it’s delivered to you in dazzling color.

So become a literary voyeur. One who observes the delicious soup of life in order to enrich art. Become a human surveillance camera. You think that geezer who peers in through a strangers’  is looking for generalizations? Not close, my friend. He’s looking for the distinguishing marks:  the moles, the birthmarks, the ear hairs. They – you – me, we’re looking for those details that are not-me. She is not me – in a hundred ways. You know the love poem even Bugs Bunny could recite: “how do I love thee, let me count the ways”? Don’t let that be an idle promise. List those 100 ways and make every one of them sweet and juicy and poignant.

Don’t just write from the surface, dive in. Write about what is remarkable in the world around you, like an unblinking camera. Go deep and observe acutely. Nothing is good or bad, it just is. Look, and really see. Let go of who you are; who you think you are. Let go of the photographer; be the camera. Allow the photograph.

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