Turning People into Story-fodder

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.

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

12 comments

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  1. Jot

    I like to think that being a writer puts us in touch with humanity moreso than others who do not write. We observe what is going on around us more than the person who sees things at a surface level. I think this actually promotes more sympathy for others when we analyze people’s situations. We learn more about them and in the process we learn about ourselves.

    • Damyanti

      Thanks for your comment, Jot. It is spot-on. And welcome to my blog.

      Also, would appreciate your help for the #atozchallenge which I talk about in my latest post.

  2. Gladys Hobson

    To the writer, observation is the companion of inspiration. I would like to think that ready-made meals, shaggy-looking guy is an artist or writer! No time, nor inclination to spend time on mundane things like cooking.

    • Damyanti

      It is going to be fun indeed! Will follow you back, Monica. I went over to your blog and liked what I saw. Thanks for visiting my blog, and welcome!

  3. bronxboy55

    Your ability to look closely and really see — whether as a writer or simply as a human being — is critical to fixing the world’s problems. It has great value.

  4. The Compulsive Writer

    Sounds like what my grocery cart looks like…lots of frozen stuff. Though…I’d rather have the hummus..:)

    I constantly make up stories in my head about the people I see in the day. Its…its what a writer does (that is why I started my blog…I have a thing for making up history). Glad to know I’m not alone.

    • Damyanti

      Welcome to my blog, and I’m glad I’m not alone either.

      There’s a difference between frozen ingredients and microwavable dinners…and I’m a cook-from-scratch freak! Made pancakes this morning from scratch and loved the result.

      Head over to my place and I’ll cook 🙂

  5. DarcKnyt

    I guess we all do this to some degree. I don’t think anyone is truly non-judgmental. Those who claim it are likely turning a blind eye to some of their circumstances and inner thoughts.

    It’s the heart’s thoughts we need to learn to listen to.