Yesterday, at the check-out queue at my local grocery shop, I saw the basket sitting at the check-out counter in front of mine: microwavable pizza, microwavable sausage rolls, microwavable dinners piled one on top of the other, readymade sachets of coffee, with a measly packet of tomatoes peeking from the bottom. Lousy housewife, I said to myself.
I looked up to find a man whose shoulder-length blonde hair clung to his pate in desperation. He had a wilted beard, clothes that seemed to like the floor better than his body, downcast eyes.
I turned back at my basket piled with vegetables, wholemeal pita bread, with ingredients for hummus and salad, and felt bad. I wanted to invite him home to dinner. That way, I told myself I could also find out who he was, his story, why he stood at a high-end grocery store in heartland Singapore, buying microwavable dinners. Did he have a family? What sort of job?
He paid his bill of 23.45 in one dollar coins and smaller change, from a zip-lock bag.
He moved on, and as the girl at the counter beeped each of my purchases and put them in packs for me to carry, I was filled with self-loathing. Instead of staying with my first impulse of sympathy, I had felt a writer’s curiosity. In my mind, I had reduced the man to fodder for stories.
On my walk back home, I realised I did this all the time. I saw a man walk past, gangly, not young, nor yet old, with a face that would be the casting dream for a horror movie, deep-set reddish eyes, and a face that had been punched from his left jaw to right, and remained frozen that way. I chalked him up as someone I could write about, and turned back to observe his walk. A limp, not unlike that of aliens in movies like Men in Black.
I realised this is what I do, have always done, even before I was a writer: wonder about people, make up stories about them. Too late to change that now.
As I unlocked my door thumping down the grocery bags, I knew I was ok as long as I was not deliberately writing/publishing something as a personal vendetta against someone. Characters can only be borrowed from life and they’re true Frankensteins, with body parts and characteristics borrowed from various sources. As long as I had a worthwhile story, I had every right as a writer to be curious. And yes, the first impulse of empathy and compassion? As a writer I can’t afford to lose that either.
If turning people into story-fodder is sin, I’m willing to live with that.