The Power of Omnivorous Observation

The Genesee Billiards Club, which a) doesn’t exist and b) has seen better days.

I waste a lot of time. I read a lot of magazine articles, I listen to a lot of music, I watch a lot of YouTube videos. A time-and-motion analysis of my normal days would horrify you and embarrass me, so let’s not.

And yet, let me put forward a countering idea. None of that is wasted, because it all becomes seeds that can emerge without prediction in my writing. (Or becomes the compost within which the seeds grow: your metaphor may vary.)

Here, let me give you an example. I was writing about a young American on his way to becoming an elite table tennis player, about the training and the carefully planned nutrition and the constant nagging about technique and strategy that come with any elite athletic aspiration. And I was early in the story, not quite sure what I wanted to do, and started browsing YouTube videos of the Chinese world champion Xu Xin, an elite athlete since he was ten. And I came across this one. On its face, it’s inconsequential: a “day in the life” promo by his primary sponsor, Stiga. And I didn’t learn anything new from it, although that cool chop-and-catch trick he does with his fingernails at 1:38 does show up in the book.

But you cannot watch that video and not understand something new about loneliness, and how that kind of loneliness is an inherent part of elite activity. How one by necessity isolates from the world, from almost everyone else, in order to narrow down onto this single, mighty thing. My book became a book about loneliness a little bit, and it wouldn’t have without that small moment of woolgathering.

In my very first novel, I needed to know what kind of landscape Robert’s pool room would have been in, so I spent an hour on Google Maps, finally locating the building on Genesee Avenue in Saginaw, Michigan (near the corner of Federal Ave, if you want to look—it’s the three-story brick building at the start of this essay, with the phone number painted on the boarded-up facade). The book is set in 1956 and the street photo is from July 2014, but we’ve all seen enough of these small downtowns to know what it would have been like in a more vigorous era, when Saginaw was double its current population and GM workers were protected by their unions. And then to walk through the residential neighborhoods just off either side of Genesee, and imagining something about who would have lived in those homes and what that meant for Robert and Charles’ customer base. The Genesee Billiards Club owes its detail in part to pool rooms I’ve been in, in part to the Eagles’ Club where my dad spent most evenings, but in greater part to this seemingly casual browsing that leaves its residue behind.

This subconscious process comes up for me today because, I kid you not, I heard one of my fictional characters on the radio today. SRSLY!!!

Today’s episode of the NPR show 1A was about America’s broad variety of “congregate care” therapy camps for teenagers, and the innumerable abuses they’ve perpetrated against their young captives. The guests were Kenneth Rosen, a journalist with a new book about the “troubled-teen” industry; Sara Gelser, an Oregon state legislator who’s trying to write oversight legislation in her state; and Megan Stokes, the executive director of the trade group, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. The program’s host asked a seemingly simple question: do these programs work? Rosen, the journalist, said there’s no research-based evidence that they do. Gelser, the state senator, said there’s no research-based evidence that they do. But Ms. Stokes, the E.D. of the trade group, gave a long non-answer, about how they’ve partnered with the University of New Hampshire, and exactly which research instruments they use for kids and for families and the fact that those instruments have received an A rating from some other trade group, and how each program hires a third party to conduct the questionnaires, and how the data is anonymized before it goes back to New Hampshire for analysis…

And it turns out that I’d written exactly this two years ago, when Kurt and Megan brought their adopted daughter Sarasa to family court because some educational assessment administrator had decided that she was in need of special education. The family’s psychologist had already testified that the school district’s diagnostic category was no longer in common use, and that she believed that Sarasa was doing well. Let’s pick it up there, with the judge’s follow-on question to the school district administrator:

“Ms. Barr, your judgment is that Sarasa is not doing as well as you might hope. What did you see that leads you to that belief?” 

She straightened herself, and Kurt was surprised to see how tall she was when she unfurled. She never raised her eyes from her notes. “Your honor, the Northern Radford County Unified Union School District adheres to the ICD-10, which is acknowledged as best practice among educational professionals. The PDD-NOS diagnostic category allows for an educator to capture behavioral disorders that don’t fall easily within the other autism spectrum disorder groups. Common indicators of PDD-NOS might include…”

“If I might interrupt,” the judge said, “allow me to clarify my question. My question is about Sarasa, and the specifics of your interaction with her. What did she do or say that you found troubling?”

Ms. Barr regrouped, tried to start over without the benefit of her prepared remarks.

from Trailing Spouse, 2019

We’ve all been part of this conversation, with a self-important person clearly painted into a corner and desperately trying to talk their way out without having anything meaningful to say. And those conversations stick in your head somewhere, accessible without prompting when the right moment draws them forward. Ms. Barr in the novel… Ms. Stokes on the radio… Mr. Roy in ninth grade… our current local Vermont state representative… people who have nothing whatsoever to justify their positions except the vast self-assurance that they’re right. People who drone on, delivering no information, sloshing out a soothing coat of paint that they believe conceals every flaw in their thinking.

We all have novels within us, even as every character within them is real. Each of us have built a storehouse of life experiences, from grade school and early family through web browsing and random NPR shows on the way back from the hardware store. All of those characters, all of those moments, are waiting for us to open that cabinet and put them to use.

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