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Turning People into Story-fodder

By 30/03/2011writing

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.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Jot says:

    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 says:

      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.

  • 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.

  • Monica says:

    Found you from the A-Z Blogging Challenge, it sounds like it’s going to be so much fun and I can’t wait to get started!! I’m now following your blog on GFC and I hope you have a chance to check out my blog and maybe follow me back!!

    • Damyanti says:

      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!

  • bronxboy55 says:

    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.

  • 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 says:

      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 🙂

  • DarcKnyt says:

    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.

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