One of the sources of inspiration I’ve relied on is being an attentive traveler, and leading a life in which I am aware of the things going on around me.

Being attentive to the actions, attitudes, gestures, and words of those around me is a key component of writing elements of plot, character, setting, dialogue, and significant detail. In every single area, when a student or other writer asks, “How can I get better at…x?” my first response is, “Watch what other people are doing. Observe. Take a step back. Look around you.”

Even when I am teaching personal history (Legacy) non-fiction writing, I use a modified “look around you” exercise to help the writers re-immerse themselves in the world of their youth so they can be attentive to the little details of their past lives.

Traveling is a great opportunity for inspiration for our writing. Observing the people, places, and events around us can add depth and meaning to our writing.
Traveling is a great opportunity for inspiration for our writing. Observing the people, places, and events around us can add depth and meaning to our writing.

How To Be Attentive, Without Getting Your Nose Punched In

Living an attentive life does not mean snooping, prying (too much), or otherwise violating the privacy of those around you. Yes, it is common writing advice to, “Listen to conversations around you,” and I don’t disagree: I’ve written some great dialogue based on PARTS of real conversations I’ve either had, overheard, or had related to me.

But that same advice to listen in on other people almost always comes with a warning: “Don’t let them see you listening. You will upset someone. Or worse. You might get socked in the face.”

Here are my tips to being attentive:

  1. Don’t get socked in the face. Pain is a distractor and blood can really mess up your notebook. It is possible to watch and observe without being nosy. If someone is having a public conversation, and you can hear it, fine. If they sneak off to the women’s restroom to continue their talk, I don’t suggest following them in there, Bob.
  2. Often, it isn’t the big detail that matters to me, rather I find inspiration in the minutia of what is happening or being said. It is in the small gesture, the odd turn of phrase, or the pause in between delivering the bad news and delivering the REALLY bad news where I find meaning. These small moments are where I find metaphor and depth, not in some grand, demonstrative fight. I may overhear a marital breakup, but it won’t be the breakup itself that makes it into a story some day: it will be the way the woman’s voice rose in pitch with every protest about why she deserved another chance.
  3. The same is often true of smaller gestures and facial expressions. A face screwed up in agony or disgust is certainly a powerful image, but I’m also always looking for something more subtle. A glance. A looking away. Turning the shoulders. One word spoken or one subtle gesture will be the trigger for some bigger story, for me.
  4. If we are traveling and fretting about being the first on the plane or the first off the train, we can miss so much of what is actually going on around us. Every time we close off the larger world and focus on ourselves, we loose a chance to see something we won’t see if we are staring at a book, a phone, or a tablet. If we are listening so intently to the music of our own soundtrack, we might not hear the chorus of voices filled with story triggers floating all around us like a slightly-crass angelic host.

What are your tips for being attentive? What do you do to coax inspiration from the world around you?

Hey Buddy, Pay Attention.