Letting Your Neighbors Inspire Your Writing
October 13, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Caren Lissner
Each year around this time, as the temperature gets colder and the nights grow longer, I spend more time sequestered in my small fifth-story apartment, writing. Luckily, the neighbors always provide extra inspiration. It’s not that they stop up to visit or that I see them more often in the streets now that they’re back from their summers away. Rather, this is the time of year when they remove the air conditioners and fans from the narrow windows of their apartments and brownstones, and my view changes dramatically.
At night, I start to notice a beautiful contrast: rows and rows of glowing windows juxtaposed against a cobalt sky. But I notice something else: more clues to the occupants’ personalities, the decorations that were obscured by their hardware — the jaunty sports pennants, flags from other countries, swirling suncatchers.
I also notice much more, a glimpse of their daily routines, providing both a distraction from my solitude and a reminder of the types of quirks I need to include to deeply shade the characters in my work.
For instance, take the guy directly across the street, who lives on the fifth floor of a beige row-home. From January through April, I spy him up into the wee hours, hunched over a desk beneath a small metal lamp. He takes breaks to head to the kitchen, and then it’s back to work. Since he’s only up so late during tax season, I have a pretty good idea what he does for a living. When we’re both at our desks at 2 or 3 a.m., I feel a camaraderie with him, another soul who understands the value of being productive during the most quiet time of night.
I’ve seen neighbors go through family changes. A new pet appears, an orange kitten who climbs onto the sill to stretch in the sunshine, its eyes turning to contented slits. Or the side of a crib suddenly presses against the window like a temporary safety gate against the world.
A week ago, I noticed that all the shades and curtains disappeared from a window on the fourth floor of the building across the street, affording me a view of a cavernous room with shiny wood floors. Days later, a regiment of cleaning products lined the sill, and a young man moved in. I caught glimpses of him in his t-shirt and baseball cap. He’s probably one of the young people who flood this area to start their first job in Manhattan after college graduation, as I did two decades ago. Perhaps he doesn’t know anyone in this town yet, or maybe he has many friends who will fill his apartment this weekend for his first party. Perhaps he expects, as I once did, to be here only a few years before leaving for the suburbs. I may cross paths with him tomorrow when he’s dashing for the bus in suit and tie, and not even recognize him. But will he recognize me?
In the last few years, I’ve found out, through conversations on social media, that various childhood friends of mine lived in this town right after college, but moved to the suburbs before either of us realized that we were around the corner from each other. There was no social media to connect us then. It’s too bad that we didn’t at least meet up for a drink before our paths diverged. In fact, right now, there may be people all around me who have something deep inside that would amaze me, but we’re looking at each other’s glowing window and neither of us knows it. Perhaps we will never know.
As a writer, I often use my imagination to fill in the blanks of people’s lives, to make more sense of the world. But perhaps I should forsake imagination for a little initiative. Because I really don’t know enough of my neighbors. As the cold weather settles in, it’s tempting to hole up all weekend. The next time I go out, I’m going to say hello to a few more people I pass, perhaps ask questions about their dogs. If they don’t find it too much of a trespass in these isolated times, perhaps they’ll smile back. It might make autumn feel a bit warmer – that, and taking the fans out of the windows.
Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist who’s been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, LitHub, and McSweeney’s. Her humorous first book, Carrie Pilby, was made into a movie that premiered on Netflix in September. She’s presently finishing up a new novel and a funny memoir.