Thursday, July 22, 2010

Zeitgeist's Observer

by Gigi

There's a bar near where I used to work in San Francisco called Zeitgeist. It's the kind of place that I liked to go to after work, with its large backyard full of sprawling tables and trees. The kind of place where you can chill with your friends while people-watching -- and there are always interesting people in this neighborhood at the edge of the Mission District.

I love observing people to understand the times. (Yes, I'm the child of cultural anthropologists; but no, my skill in people-watching does not transfer to eavesdropping, which I'm terrible at.)

I've always been the observer.

It was my role in back at school, when I read The Great Gatsby and immediately identified with the narrator, Nick. One friend called me Nick for a while after we read that book, while I called her Jay. And when I saw the musical Rent, oh how I was at one with Mark, the geeky documentary filmmaker.

I'm most at home behind the camera, capturing the essence of what's around me. I find I get the most authentic shots when I wait a while after taking out my camera. That way people forget about the camera and stop posing, allowing me to capture their natural spirit -- like in this photo of my friends in a bar in Bath, England.

Since I seem to be continuing with the bar theme, here's a photo I took at a San Francisco bar (though it's not Zeitgeist):

Writing fiction is similar to these moments observed through the lens of a camera. You put the essence of life into a story, not every mundane detail.

Have you ever read a book with dialogue like:
"Hi, how are you?"
"Good, you?"
"I'm good. How was your weekend?"
"Nice. Yours?"
"Pretty good. The neighbors came over for a barbeque."

If a writer left that in, you'd either fall asleep or throw the book across the room. Yet you probably had that exact conversation at work on Monday morning. But to capture the spirit of reality, you start writing where the conversation gets interesting. What little gems of details say more about the world than the sum of their parts? Therein lies the fun in capturing the spirit of the times.


Lisa Hughey said...

I adore evesdropping :) but sometimes it is even more fascinating to watch body language without being able to hear the conversation....

Sophie Littlefield said...

you are *such* an amazing photographer gigi...I love the b/w one of your friends. It's truly stunning.

I giggle to think of you thinking of yourself as an observer. I mean yes it's true i think you are a *keen* observer but you are also someone that people notice. Cause of your shiny and all.

Mysti Lou said...


That photo of women talking (you can tell the music was LOUD just from their body posture) to each other, dressed all alike in jeans that emphasize thighs and butt the way bustles used to, bathed in an unnatural light, sums up parts of SF life that I haven't been able to do with thousands and thousands of words. Thank you!!!!

One of the first screenwriting exercises we did was go somewhere that people congregated around tables and talked (food court, coffee shop, etc.), and simply recorded what people said in a notebook, and then looked at it, and thought about the subtext (what they meant but didn't say). Spending a little bit of time as a simple scribe developed our eavesdropping skills. People say the damndest things on BART & on the street. Now I know why my husband always wants me to talk quietly when we are on the train :)

According to linguists who measure such things, a HUGE amount of all our verbal communications (40%? 50%? it was huge) are simple verifications, things like 'you know?' or repeating what the other person said 'you stayed out all night with BOB?'.

Writers have to cut the 50% :)

i'm struggling to capture the unique aspects of San Francisco speech, the weird lilt at the end of sentences in some folks (like an Australian accent almost), how fast people talk downtown, the way so many new arrivals are desperate to be hip, the clueless business men who jaywalk with absolute certainty that the MUNI bus will stop in time. The whole teaming, struggling, farcical scene. One day...until then, sure glad you share your photos and observations!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Yeah. What Mysti said ;-)
I love this Gigi -- as a recovering anthropologist myself, I can't help but see folks through the ethnographic lens, whether I'm at a party or in a meeting or on the bus. That's one thing I love about urban life, though, how we're all shoved together and dealing, by and large, with one another in a relatively civilized way.
The hard part is translating all that to paper in our books!

Gigi Pandian said...

Mysti and Juliet - Yes, isn't it funny how creating "real" dialogue in a book isn't real at all? ;)

Lisa -- You're so right about body language, which is why I love photography.

Sophie -- It's true I don't consider myself a wallflower at all. I think I'm so comfortable in my role of observer because I'm comfortable with myself first. I'm able to get those photos because I've put myself in interesting situations -- and then they're so interesting that I can't help but want to document them in a true way.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Oh, Gigi, I LOVE those photos. The one in the SF bar--so freakin' cool.

I don't see the world as keenly as you do, but I'm a shameless eavesdropper. I think a lot of people know they have an audience, and enjoy telling scandalous tales. There's a safe anonymity in such exhibitionism if one is self-aware enough to indulge it. Other people are just clueless and hapless and those are the most fun to observe.

Rachael Herron said...

OMG, I have to eliminate so much of that crap from this first draft of the novel. I know I do. I let myself put it all in, and then I get the fun of taking it out.

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