The Artist As Observer

Surreal Eye Painting Photo Credit: Surreal eye with landscape, downloaded 2015: natureworks/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Several months ago, a question was asked on a fiction writer’s group: Do writers write in the characters that inhabit their fiction or do they write as the third eye, observing and recording?

This question isn’t so much about creating character as it is about the writer/artist as observer. One of the stereotypes about artists is that we do not participate in the life parade but prefer to watch it from the sidewalk, observing the missteps, the squabbles, the tears. I speak of this in this post, of our happy position as sponges, absorbing the world around us. But it is also a contradictory one, as the human world requires us to watch and listen and experience.

Many, though not all, artists (writers especially) are introverts. We prefer to stay in the shadows, we speak in silence, we communicate better when we write rather than speak. It is one reason that we chose to become writers. I mentioned before how writing gave me a voice when I had none. So maybe it’s natural for me to cast myself in the role of watcher, to let the details of people and places sink in naturally rather than chase after something that might prove artificial or trite to me. It’s difficult to participate and observe at the same time. Of course, this is not true of all writers. There have always been literary gatherings such as the salon run by Natalie Clifford Barney in Paris in the 1920’s and the Algonquin Round Table with their snarky wit and camaraderie. But another recent conversation surveyed the comfort level of indie writers with promotion and revealed that many of us felt socially inept and withdrawn, watchers more than participants.

When I was in college, my extrovert non-writer roommate convinced me to attend a party with her. It was the last party I ever attended. In the small smoky living room of another student’s flat, where the furniture had been pushed aside, the florescent light spotlighting the makeshift bar in the kitchen, I stood against the wall between shadows. Even as my friend tried to coax me, I was more interested in listening to the tweedy voices and the fighting couple at the bathroom door and watching my friend’s flirtations.

But the artist as observer is about more than just social discomfort. Observations are, of course, fodder for art. There is a joke: never anger a writer or they will put you in their story and kill you off. We absorb in order to use. Artists are users in the a sense. Anais Nin, in a letter to Henry Miller, wrote:

“I act as every other artist will act, I make use of another new instrument to create more and more complications.” (Nin, letter to Henry Miller, pg 112)

Nin’s instrument in this particular case is psychoanalysis but any observation the artist makes can be an instrument of creativity. The idea is that we transform these observatory instruments into something more real than they were in reality (“[T]transforming simple everyday human realities into crystals of artistic truth…” (Stanislavsky, Ch. 8, pg. 174)).

Several years ago, I was traveling on the BART train from San Francisco to the East Bay. A woman boarded the train with a man in a wheelchair. This man intrigued me, with his arm lifted up to his shoulder, one leg stretched out past the other, head covered with a large baseball cap and pushed to one side. The man’s dignity and countenance, pink with rosy flesh rather than the pale pallor of a living death, touched me and I never forgot him.

I transformed the image of the man in an short story:

“On the porch sat three cats nearly in perfect symmetry. Next to them, a man sat in a chair. The man reminded Penny of the stone Lincoln she had once visited in Washington on a school trip. While her classmates struggled to read the fine printed words, she had gazed fascinated at the still face, curved solemn and assured, the wide hands resting as if holding the world in place. This man had the same square face and serenity and the same large hands though one drew away from the body at heart level and the feet flew apart.”

Observation is how artists absorb psychological reality, the gestures, words between the words, emotions that people reveal without knowing it, and create an alchemy of truth in fiction.

Works Cited

Stuhlmann, Gunther. A Literate Passion: Letters Of Anais Nin And Henry Miller 1932-1953. Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1987. Kindle digital file.

Stanislavsky, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Aristophanes Press, 2015 (original publication date 1936). Kindle digital file.


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