Watching Like A Watching Watcher: Learning Through Observation

Once upon a time, about a million years ago, I worked at summer camp.

Laughing-man

Okay, it wasn’t a million years ago. I was 16. So, this awkward, nervous teenager shows up to shepherd kiddies, keep a semblance of order, and entertain/educate. All while attending to the the bathroom breaks, hurt feelings, lost water bottles, tears, and Popsicles that inevitably come with summer camp.

One morning, we were packing up the kids so we could trek to Swim. Naturally, one kid threw his backpack down and wailed. I froze—what did I say to a screaming four-year-old? What did I do with the other kids, who were now gawping? What if we were late for Swim?

My co-counsellor that week was one of the veterans. She was twenty-one. (At sixteen, the counsellors in their early twenties seemed the epitome of venerable coolness. My super grown-up supervisor was probably no older than I am now.) Anyway, my co-counsellor knelt down and talked to the kid, using a mix of humour and firmness, motioning the other kids along.

And I watched.

I really, really watched. I watched how she approached the kid, how she crouched down, what she said, what tone she used, when she pushed, when she pulled back.

Then I started watching the other counsellors. Why did kids respond to them? How did they handle screaming kids, arguments, chaos? Why were their activities successful? What did the kids latch onto and adore?

Watching wasn’t enough. So, I started mimicking.

A phrase here. An inflection there. Counting to three, time-out, praise—a cornucopia of solutions and tricks. Sometimes, they worked. Sometimes they didn’t. A funny thing happened, though. The more I mimicked, the more these disparate elements merged together with my personality, my style.

Guess which Secret Agent I am??

Ca. 2008: Guess which Secret Agent I am??

At the time, I thought of it as synthesis. I’d taken all these bits and pieces that belonged to other people, and they’d transformed and recombined into something that was me.

By the time I left camp four years later, I’d learned how to counsellor—and I’d learned to do it as Yodel. Yodel didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she worked around them with a smile. She kept up to date on kid pop culture. She was irreverent and goofy, happy to get soaked in water fights and tell the same stories ad nauseam. But—when her voice dropped and flattened, game time was over.

When I showed up at Black Creek, I knew that this was my process. Locate, dissect, imitate, synthesize. I very consciously watched the other interpreters—far more consciously than I ever did at camp. Then I picked apart their interpretation, their tours. Not in a mean way, in a scientific way. What were they doing? Why did it work? How did it work?

And now we’re four years on again, and I’ve learned how Katie interprets. She’s never quite been able to eradicate that innocence and unabashed enthusiasm. Nor does she particularly want to. Sass doesn’t suit her, but the occasional dry comment does. (Writing in third person weirds her out, she just learned.)

Still the same dress four years on...but I kinda like this picture. I look - self-assured, I guess. It feels good.

Still the same dress four years on…but I kinda like this picture. I look – self-assured, I guess. It feels good.

Anyway, this applies to writing. This location-dissection-imitation-synthesis model is how I learn. At Stonecoast, this is precisely why we do annotations. We read other authors and say, “Okay. What are they doing here? How are they doing it? Why does it work?”

I’ve found a few writerly models. For the last year, I’ve been dissecting and thinking. I’m still dissecting and thinking. But I’ve also started imitating. The stories I’ve been writing have bits of this author here, traces of that one there…but there’s a sense too, that the elements are shifting as I write them.

We’re not quite at synthesis yet. I suspect it’s because I’m still not entirely sure how I write as myself. At least, not all the time. But isn’t it funny, that in this process, you find yourself by studying others? The way to look inwards is to gaze outwards.

So, I’ve been consciously studying for a year. My model seems to take about four. Where will I be in three years, then?

I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

An old favourite: Eleanor Daley’s setting of Ubi Caritas. The text of Ubi Caritas is really old—somewhere between the fourth and tenth centuries. So I appreciate the Gregorian feeling Daley gives it as the piece opens, only to surge into this very modern-feeling, very joyful outpouring about two minutes in—the altos slide like ribbons under the sopranos. It all resolves in the end, even when the Gregorian tune comes back, resolutely driving under the top line. I like that: the old and new treatment together.

But of course, my favourite part of Ubi Caritas is the rather-loose-but-very-pretty translation of the hymn itself.

Ubi caritas et amor,

Deus ibi est,

Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor

Exsultemus et in ipso jucundemur..

Where there is love,

God is there.

Love has brought us here.

Let us rejoice and be glad…

Yep.

Posted on March 23, 2015, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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