Writers, as a breed, are keen observers. Mostly this skill comes naturally but it doesn’t hurt to hone it. I try to practice daily by taking a walk.
My walks are not slow meanders; they are purposeful, mindful efforts to get exercise and to clear my head of clutter and noise. I walk at a good clip but I take in everything around me – mostly because I’m worried about falling into a hole or getting mugged.
A sampling of today’s observations:
- Pale woman, tangled dark hair thrown haphazardly into a pile on top of her head. She has a stony, determined look on her face as she walks. She is pushing a double stroller laden with two squirming youngsters. Her smile is more like a grimace.
- An angry woman. How do I know she’s angry? From a block away, I can hear her slamming the front door of her house, as I get closer I see her ripping open the outer screen door with such force I fully expect it to go flying into the yard. She is pushing, pulling what look like moving boxes onto the front stoop. There is no one helping her. A VW bus is parked at the curb. The germ of a story begins to form…either she or her soon-to-be-ex-husband are sleeping in that van tonight.
- A man, Mediterranean descent, walks a good ten yards ahead of his very young daughters, one dressed in a sparkly tutu. I know part of his story instantly – he is on “kid duty” this morning, charged with getting the girls to their day camp at the local school. His wife is on the cool sand of the beach, partaking in an early morning yoga class…or maybe…she is farther away. Much.
On these walks I empty my mind of all the mundane bullshit that usually resides there. What I see pours in. Sure, I keep a wary eye out for uneven sidewalks, muggers, and suspicious dogs but mostly I look around and wonder. I wonder about the houses, the people, their pets, their garden plantings and so forth.
A thin ribbon of roadway separates my neighbourhood from the wealthier section closer to the lake. The houses double in size and double in price the closer to the water I get. Cars in the driveways go from minivans to Range Rovers. Front yard plantings get more manicured. The stories set here can be infinitely complicated and interesting. I love inserting scandal – it’s like icing on a warm cinnamon bun.
I make it a point to walk by one house every morning. I call it my house in a quasi-delusional way. It is a grand house with a superb location. One of the original beach “cottages,” this structure is way more mansion than cottage. Constructed of clapboard, it is a stately Victorian complete with wraparound porches and a turret. I’ve furnished it in my head and of course, my writing retreat is on the top floor of the turret in a canopy of trees. In winter I would have an unobstructed view of the lake.
There’s something curious about this house. I’ve walked by it for nearly three years, in all seasons. I have never, ever seen anyone in the yard. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not abandoned. Quite the opposite; it is immaculately maintained. But there is no evidence of humanity – no garden tools left leaning on the porch, no children’s toys or bikes, not even a car left outside the little detached garage. Its generous porches are devoid of comfortable chairs, hammocks or even a stool for sitting on.
If that house were mine…oh boy, it would look loved, lived in and probably a lot worse for wear. But damn, the gin and tonics I would serve on those porches would be killer.
Today I encountered a woman walking a black dog. On another day I encountered at least half a dozen people – all walking black dogs. One woman struck me in particular. She was walking ever so slowly. The dog ambled ahead with no leash. There was something about her body language that projected deep sadness. I wondered and wondered about her as I walked home.
“The Black Dog” is now being sent out to various places, hopefully to be published soon.
Every day brings the potential for another idea, a spark, a story born of a wander and a bit of wonder.