October 22, 2009

Dear Cary,

While on my part this feels like a silly kind of question to ask, I hope that you might understand. I am trying to give my problem a name so I can find a solution, but it's tricky.

I feel that I am too detail-oriented, for lack of a better description. I can find advice for people who want to become more detail-oriented, but no one seems to be concerned about noticing too many details. It's not like I go around correcting grammar. It's more introverted, I guess. I am constantly, compulsively fixated on details -- especially details about people. I notice the way they speak, the way they walk, the way they change their behavior ever so slightly when a specific person is in the room. I notice the way that they take their coffee, the way they get really excited at the smallest bit of attention, the way they look, and the things they do. I notice just about everything about them and then I store it away. I analyze them. I scrutinize them. I judge them. I try to understand them. And it makes me crazy.

I get frustrated when others cannot see these things, too. I get frustrated when I bring up a detail that I've noticed about a person and no one knows what I'm talking about. And I know I'm not making things up. I know they are there, but I feel like I see a world of things that no one else can see -- that no one else wants to see. And sometimes I don't want to see these things either. It makes me feel mean. As if I can't just appreciate things for what they are.

And sometimes it just ruins some moments because I can't turn it off or let it go. I can't just shut off this act of noticing. It's what anchors me to the truth about things. It's what gives me control in situations -- knowing everything about it, and the people involved. I just don't know how to turn it off. Or at least bring it down to a simmer so that I can just experience something without anticipating or analyzing the hell out of it. I want to enjoy a picture without scrutinizing the aesthetics. I want to enjoy a moment with friends without spending most of the time observing every detail. I want to let people show me and tell me things about themselves instead of always feeling like some kind of stalker who knows more than has been shared with them. And maybe I need an outlet for this noticing, this library of details. I just haven't come up with anything very clever yet.

I'm hoping you can help.

Wrestling With the Devil in the Details



Dear Wrestler,


Over time I have discovered there is a big difference between knowing things about people and knowing people. It can be very enjoyable to study others and take notes, but this doesn't bring you closer to them, and this activity actually separates you from others. In my case, I am shy, and I viewed knowing others as tricky and scary, so I think all the observation (apart from being enjoyable and something I am inclined to and good at) served in my mind to prepare me for intimacy. I thought I would understand this or that person better, so interacting with him or her would be easier. But the preparation never really ended. I ended up on the outskirts as people grew closer by experiencing life together. And people saw me as standoffish, weird, snobby, quiet, boring, etc.... The letter writer doesn't state this is true in his or her case.

I think the letter writer can enjoy observing, but realize this is a private activity, separate from forming relationships. Think about how you would feel if someone were to say, "I notice that you always wear your red sweater on Tuesdays. I bet you really like that sweater." Even if this were true, and you felt flattered by the attention, you would likely also feel somewhat exposed. It is wholly different if you choose to share with someone that you love your red sweater. Don't share so many of your observations, unless people ask you for them. Allow people to let you know them the way they want to be known -- how much information they wish to share, when and how.
--------------------------

Maybe you don't need to come up with anything very clever for this. Maybe you just need to write these things down. I am certainly curious. I imagine we're all pretty curious by now, knowing there's someone out there observing things we're missing about others, observing things we're missing about ourselves, uncovering a hidden world in plain sight.

So I suggest that you begin keeping a journal of these things that you see. As you record and catalog these observations, you will feel the slow, heavy weight of hours, and will acquire belated respect for the natural scientists of the world, who painstakingly recorded what they saw. It will calm you down, I predict. During the time you take to record these observations you will be prevented from observing and forced to recollect. That will be a brief vacation.

It will force you to give shape to what you have gathered. I surmise that what irritates you is the out-of-controlness of this incessant act of noticing and processing; placing these observations in a journal will give you control over them, and introduce you to the other, complementary half of this propensity: the arranging of the flowers you have gathered, the cooking and serving of the harvest. Honestly, I think that is what you are missing: You are doing the noticing without the shaping, so you also have a sense of wasting. All that precious fruit of the earth is left to rot in the field. Of course it makes you feel irritable. You are not reaping the rewards of your harvest.

If you were a plein air painter you would go outdoors to paint and then you would bring it home. At home, having captured these sensations, you would then interact with them in a very personal way, bringing your own spirit to what you have gathered. If you were a photographer of the old school you would come home to your darkroom and develop the film and then pass light through the film in order to view the images on it; you would enlarge the images and view them on bright, white Kodak paper; you would make adjustments and then you would print the images and develop them, rocking the developer in the tray, rocking the fixative in the tray. All these actions consume time; they are slowed by the obdurate majesty of life in the physical.

Writing these impressions will also force you to say exactly what you believe you know about these people you are observing. What motion or expression is it, exactly, that you notice flickering across the face of a friend or acquaintance when she tells a story you believe is only half the truth? What is it exactly that you believe she is truly thinking as she speaks, and why? What do you know about this person that puts you at variance with what she says and what others believe? These things we want to know. We want to know these mysteries that you perceive. In a sense, we say: You must tell us.

It needn't be "factual." It can be fiction. In fact, it is precisely the stuff of fiction: a modified omniscience. A person in a story sees more than what is on the surface and reports this. It is not godlike; it is human. Yet as a viewpoint it is as all-knowing as a human can be.

This intrigues us as readers. We want to know.

So by writing these observations in your journal you will slow the process down and find some peace with it. You will achieve a sense of completion, as though you had not only gathered a harvest but prepared a feast. Two, you will bring these observations into the world in a form that pleases others. In this second matter, you need not embarrass anyone by naming them; it will probably be best if you call this all fiction, and give the characters fictitious, even wildly implausible identities, so that you are free to indulge your talent without fear of harming others or yourself.

from: Since You Asked: Salon.com