Nora Zelevansky: How People-Watching Can Become a Story-Telling Device

From a post on by Nora Zelevansky headlined “The Benefits of People-Watching: How My Weird Subway Ritual Became a Storytelling Device”:

A few years ago, in the “before times,” when riding the train was generally a mundane experience, I had a conversation over a boozy dinner with an old friend, a native New Yorker like me, about how we pass time on the subway.

“I look around the car,” she said, leaning in conspiratorially, “and think about who I’d most like to have sex with.”

“You do?” My mouth dropped open. “I think about who the best partner in an apocalyptic emergency would be.”

Being in her brain sounded more fun.

The truth is, I have a different game that I regularly play in my head, not just on the subway, but at airports while waiting to board at the gate, in movie theaters before the lights go dark, even at my local café when procrastinating instead of toiling away on my laptop.

I study the people around me and think, “Someone, somewhere, was once in love with you.” Then, based on anything I can assess about their appearance, what they’re carrying, the expression on their face, the way they respond to nearly getting kicked during “Showtime” performances on the Q train, I create a backstory for them. Did this person know that the other person loved them? Did they confess it in secret as children on the playground? How did it begin? How did it end? What did their lives look like now? Did the person who once loved them walk around hoping to run into them? (I still remember what that felt like—hoping to bump into a crush or an ex when the feelings were still fresh.) Would they be envious that I was fortunate enough to sit across from the object of their affection now? Was someone, at this very moment, closing their eyes and pining for this stranger sitting right in front of me?

Short, tall, old, young—no one escapes my scrutiny. Occasionally, I have been caught and have quickly looked away. After all, staring at a stranger, particularly on the subway, is not exactly proper etiquette. Usually, I’m caught in the act of eyeing someone while I’m trying to come up with an incongruous or surprising trait. Because that’s part of the game too: I can’t lean on stereotypes or low hanging fruit. I can’t just assume the construction worker across from me is tired after coming off a long shift, on his way home to his stay-at-home wife and three teenage kids, nostalgic for the time when they were small and would run to the door to greet him instead of barely look up from their iPhones. He also needs to love tap dancing or making sushi and homemade peach ice cream. He also needs to hate country music and love Elvis. He also needs to remember his first kiss, at the end of a snow day in Prospect Park, damp against the stone wall that delineates its edges.

Every now and again, these observations have informed my writing. When I come up with a particularly inspired set of characteristics or an evocative way to describe them, I jot it down and sometimes will give a character that quality. I used to carry a notebook in my bag for that reason, but, these days, I’m more often typing in the notes app on my phone, the dumping ground for all the things I hope to remember….Often, I also write down snippets of conversation or amusing comments that I overhear (a habit that, by no accident, Joan Didion practices too). Just yesterday, I passed a young man on the street who was on his phone, and heard him say, “I’m not a casual kind of person.” He was good looking, a gym rat. He didn’t fit the profile of the type who I’d imagine delivering that line.

This habit of projecting a profile that both fits and doesn’t has been a helpful exercise in creating dimensional characters and maybe even interpreting others with more nuance. And, in my new novel, Competitive Grieving, it became even more than that; it served as a storytelling device…


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