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The Person of the Day

1348167078_42af5df656_zI’ve often thought the most satisfying job in the world would have been Charles Kuralt’s On the Road. Head out, find an ordinary person in some ordinary place, get that story. Even as a young reporter, when all my friends were scrambling for places in hard news and political exposes, I leaned toward the interview. Individuals are so….well, personal, right?

For a long time, I’ve scribbled notes in my journal about “the person of the day,” especially when I’m traveling. I chanced across this one recently, from a trip quite some time ago:

Person of the day, Virginia Beach, Friday May 4 

Her name is Tasha, and she is my cab driver. She might be 22 or 23, no more, with a high sweet southern voice that seems to smile in my ear. Her cab is a little battered and the air conditioning doesn’t work. She has been a cabbie for a week and a half.

She is a big woman, who says she isn’t exactly swimsuit material. She’s wearing her gently curly hair, “good” hair, in a ponytail. Her skin is elegantly smooth and dark, not cocoa with that reddish undernote, but deeper, richer, like the skin of a seal. Her eyes are dark and luminous and she is very Southern, using words like “Gracious!” and “Sweetie” (to me, which seems funny as I am thirty years her senior).

She chatters all the way to my destination, the Edgar Cayce Center. In that cheery voice she tells me someone died. I didn’t catch who, and it seemed rude to ask after she kept talking about him being in heaven, which she thought would be a good place, but I think it was her boyfriend, and she misses him. Her body flows over the seats and she’s wearing a tank top, so I can see the size of her arms and the flesh spilling over the edge of her shirt at the underarm, but there is such a genuine sweetness and beauty to her that I imagine a boy who is slim and pretty but a little bit off in some way, geeky or gangster or something, who loved her.

On the way back, she tells me she loves to read Nicholas Sparks and loved The Help.

This image sticks with me, her sweet voice. Her loss. What is her story?

Another person of the day is the whippet-thin server at a Thai restaurant in strip mall near my house. She’s Asian and androgynous, with short hair and glasses that should make her geeky, but there’s an air of knowledge and aloof cool about her that takes her way into the land of hipster. She loves my friend Christina, a bereavement counselor with a ready laugh and a Swiss accent, and saves her the best booth by the window. When she suddenly disappeared not long ago, all of her fans were devastated. We can hardly bear to go there anymore.

What’s her story? Where did she go?

On a recent trip to LA (with others of our Writer Unboxed family to help promote the amazing Author in Progress [1]), my person of the day was a very fit young cab driver who took me from the airport to the hotel. He was friendly and chatty, and I guessed from his accent he was from Africa, but I can’t figure out more than that.  We started out talking about climate change and then moved on to many other subjects. He’s visited 32 countries. He supports his family, his mother and father and brothers, in Somalia. He just built them a four bedroom house, with a bathroom.

Somalia. That’s a place I know nothing about, but there he was telling me. I asked which countries he’s visited, and I could feel him offering them up like a deck of cards: would I like to hear about the Amazon? India? My eyes lit up over India. He didn’t have the best experience there, which turned out to be less about the place and more about the fact that he had to take his mother there for emergency medical treatment for a heart attack because she couldn’t get care in Somalia. It cost him a fortune, but he proudly said he had earned good credit and now he was paying it back every day, not even once a month. He tells me he is proud to be a citizen, since 2008.  He tells me America will be okay. He believes in it.

His name was Zachariah. He doesn’t drink and likes to run. I thought at first he was Muslim, but decided it might instead be Christian, that strict, joyful African brand of Christian, by the end of our ride. He happily let me take his photo.

Making notes of these people does a couple of things. First, it engages me with the world, as it is, not as I imagine it might be. I’m noticing character traits and anomolies that will serve me well later when I develop characters of my own.  I’m aware of place and how that influences people. I’m aware of cadence and mannerisms.

It’s also a good practice for a writer to carry around a notebook (or use one of the notebook apps on your phone) and take notes on daily life. Paying attention to human beings means your characters become more lifelike, less clichéd. We love this kind of thing—Humans of New York captures a single New York person. The aforementioned On the Road is another.

Because the recent elections have exposed such a division in our country, I love the idea of finding those stories in the heartland, and in the cities, and in strange, far-flung spots. I am hungry to know what my own people are thinking, all of them, and the only way to know it is one person at a time. I haven’t quite decided what form this will take, but I’m adding it to my blogging/facebooking in the near future. I hope you’ll join me in opening up to those stories, and the ones in your own world, on your travels.

Listen. Take notes. It makes you a better writer. Maybe it makes us better people, too.

Do you have a practice like this one? Do you record notes at the end of a day or scribble descriptions of people or places?




About Barbara O'Neal [2]

Barbara O'Neal [3] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [4], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [5].