Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Observe or Participate?

By Chester Campbell

Basically, I’m an observer, not a participant. I suppose over the years I’ve experienced a modest share of participating. I always dreamed of being a big sports star, but my high school football career lasted only two weeks. When I caught a knee in the mouth and broke off a front tooth, I knew my mother would give me the old Porky Pig line: “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!” With problems I’d already encountered, it resulted in a fixed bridge spanning my four front teeth.

World War II came along and I dreamed of flying fighter planes and shooting down Messerschmitts or Mitsubishis. The closest I got to the enemy was watching German prisoners in the chow line at Moody Field, GA. One of my jobs there was filing Air Force Regulations in the Air Inspector’s office. Since I liked to read, I spent most of my time reading the regulations before filing them. (Haven’t found a place to use them in a plot, however.)

As an Air Force intelligence officer in the Korean War, I combined my observation skills with a little deductive reasoning (prep school for writing crime investigation) to monitor and interpret enemy air activity in the war zone. They gave me a Bronze Star medal for that.

My observer status took front and center when I studied journalism and became a reporter on a daily newspaper. I’ve never been much of a talker, so it took a bit of effort to get the hang of asking questions when on a news assignment. I soon learned to get the maximum amount of information with a minimum of queries. Fortunately, most people, unlike me, are eager to talk and tell you what they know. In an interview with a famous violinist, all I did was introduce myself and he proceeded to regale me with many times as much information as I needed.

I never had much ambition to be a thespian, but I participated in the annual Gridiron Shows put on by Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists). While editing Nashville Magazine, I even took a bit part in a local production of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros. It was actually research for an article on the theatre, so it doesn’t count as pure participation.

I logged more observer time in the fields of advertising and public relations. As a copy writer in the ad agency’s Creative Department, I spent many hours dreaming up ways to glorify products in as few words as possible. Try writing billboard copy. On the PR side, I wrote news releases and brochures and manuals. I wasn’t the spokesperson type.

The closest I came to being a real participant was during the 18 years I spent managing a statewide trade association with over 4,000 members. I had to set up and participate in board meetings and conventions, and I made numerous speeches to local associations. Most of my work, though, was done from the sidelines. I wasn’t a get out front and take the glory guy. I created programs and sold them to my volunteers, who would bask in the limelight and get things moving. Only interested in results, I was happy to observe while they took the credit.

When I became a more-or-less fulltime fiction writer (meaning I have lots of other responsibilities that take up too much of my time), I put my observer status in high gear. The old cliché “writing is a solitary profession” is pretty well on target. But in the current milieu, hand-in-hand with writing goes promotion. I’ve been forced to become a full participant in that arena.

Normally, I don’t speak to people with whom I am unacquainted (or, as they caution little kids, I don’t talk to strangers). I rely on my wife to do most of the ice-breaking at book signings, though I’ve learned to hold out a promo folder or business card to anybody who looks like they might be a mystery reader. I will talk about my books to anyone who will listen. I used to do lots of appearances at book clubs, libraries, and such, but I’ve had to curtail that because of worn out vocal chords. How did I wear them out if I don’t like to talk? That’s another story.

The observer role suits me fine as I pursue my life as a mystery writer. I don’t go as much as I used to, but I see enough of mankind (sorry, no PC womankind or personkind) in all its permutations to satisfy my curiosity about the current scene. If you don’t happen to encounter me in one of my participatory ventures, check out my books and see if you like my observations.

1 comment:

Beth Terrell said...

Great article, Chester. I certainly identify with this one. Some years ago, a very dear friend of mine--a real risk-taker--told me that he didn't feel fully alive unless he was living at the edge of death.

Then he said, "And I've read your writing. I know you're the same way. You live on the edge."

Astonished, I said, "Oh no. All my danger is vicarious. I don't have to live on the edge, because you do."

Only you're a much better observer than I am, Chester. I sometimes spend so much time in my head that I don't see anything at all.