“Be careful,” she said. “Every time that you interact with another person, you’re entering into a story in which you are not the protagonist.”
Of course, I took it to be advice about writing, but actually, she was just using her instructor lingo to give us a life lesson. Every person we meet, she meant, had their own world of troubles. If we decided to butt our heads in, we were risking getting all of those troubles dumped on us. Unfortunately, for the sake of my craft, I tried to enter into as many stories and meet as many protagonists as I could, which probably explains why I spent so much of my high school years with my neck pressed into a locker, gasping for breath.
Eventually I learned to engage in others’ stories in a slightly less hands-on-my-neck way. That led me to a discovery that I think has done wonders for my writing: the art of people-watching.
There are a lot of public places in which people wear pieces of their lives on their sleeves, and it doesn’t take a pair of binoculars and a trenchcoat to observe. I was, and am, fortunate enough to be in a good observatory every day of the week: public transportation.
The trains and buses of Boston have been my primary way of getting around the city since I was 12, and somehow I seem to have lived or worked everywhere in the area. My regular commute has involved, at various times, the red line, orange line, blue line, all four green lines, the commuter rail, and at least seven different bus routes. There are the more extreme stories, of course: the people who’ve vomited or peed on the bus, the guy who started punching me when I wouldn’t acknowledge him, the man who’d played every video game in the world, and the inebriated businessman who had a political debate with my backpack. Those are the selfish adventures I tell people about at parties, but really, in the end, they’re my stories. I don’t have to put any effort into telling them, and I don’t have to lend any humanity to any of the “characters.”
The Green “B” Line, currently my main commute, is so packed with college students from Boston University and Boston College that people are often literally pressed together to make room for other passengers. At any given time, a good three or four people are actually telling their life stories to a cell phone, yelling to be heard over the throng. On an average day, I might hear a comedy about a moronic, privileged freshman who gave himself food poisoning or a tragedy about a struggling graduate student in physics losing her funding. Sure, these stories can be interesting, heartbreaking or hilarious, but again, they’re the low-hanging fruit. Sometimes, we have to build our characters more quietly, through description instead of dialogue. It’s in the little things.
A few days ago, I hopped on the front of the train on my way home, to where my novel revision was sitting and waiting for me. As always, I took note of the dozens of people I was about to share a car with, and not only because I was trying not to step on them or hoping one was about to vacate a seat. I was taking a writing instructor’s advice, even if the way I interpreted it was differently than she’d intended.
In the seat next to where I was standing, a young woman in her late teens or early twenties was sitting, hunched over with her hands covering her face. Her hair was a very light pink, as if the dye were fading. I could not make out the shape of her tattoos, because only little bits of their art poked out onto her arms and neck, the majority of them covered by her clothing. Her shirt, which was cut so that each edge, including the sleeves, was ragged, did not cover her midriff. Her shorts, also cut into ragged edges, were little more than a bathing suit. Every inch of her uncovered skin – her shoulders, her legs, her stomach – was crimson with sunburn. When she looked up and shifted her hands, I could see that her freckled face had already started to peel. She moved very little except for her eyes. When they were uncovered, she darted them back and forth, toward the ground, at the edges, avoiding eye contact with anyone and everyone.
I wasn’t staring. I wasn’t trying to jot her down and capture her for a book (and couldn’t have if I wanted to – one hand was carrying my girlfriend’s medicine, and the other was clutching onto the bar). I was just forced to stand near her by circumstance, and she was (no pun intended) burned into my mind. There is something mildly voyeuristic about participating in someone else’s story no matter how you come into it, of course, but I do think there is a significant difference between eavesdropping for entertainment and witnessing a person for who they are.
Every day when I get home, it’s easy to complain about the people on the MBTA, just like everyone else in the city. I tell my girlfriend about the idiot rich kids who still haven’t learned to move out of the doorways or the jerk who uses his backpack to take up two seats. The people in most stories about public transit aren’t actually people at all; they’re stock characters, props. “That woman talking on the phone had such an annoying voice.” “This homeless man punched me on the Mattapan bus, can you believe it?” Or, the worst: “Today, one of those idiots who leans against the pole was blocking the doorway.” None of that helps my writing. On top of that, it isn’t very nice.
I had no urge to laugh at that sunburned woman though, and I don’t think anyone on the train did. A bunch of us watched as she stood, miserably, wincing, and the crowd parted for her as she stepped out one of the rear doors. A bunch of us stood there, each offering her vacated seat to the other, none of us wanting to be the discourteous one to finally take it.
Normally, someone would have just sat down, but I think all of us felt that burn a little. Sometimes, if you look the right way at the crowds on public transit, you can see real, three-dimensional people, all with rich histories and deep emotions. As with the characters in novels, we see people on the train best when we stop seeing them as obstacles or entertainment and instead see their humanity.