I just returned from a month-long working vacation to teach screenwriting workshops in Hungary at the Budapest Film Academy. My family, friends, and colleagues were tucked away in their busy lives, so I traveled solo back to the city where I worked for four months in the fall of 2017. I immediately recognized the ornate art-deco door to the courtyard of my old apartment from the backseat of my cab. I even remembered which of the multiple keys belonged to the four locks on my gated door and how you had to turn the key counter-clockwise twice to unlock it.
I unpacked one suitcase and, slightly jet-lagged, ventured out to my favorite grocer for supplies: water and yogurt. The street where I once lived basked in the hazy light of late afternoon. I passed a tiny tot on a scooter followed by her bear of a father, gently guiding her past the street cafes. I breathed in the familiar smell of cigarettes wafting my way. I listened to the cacophonous refrain of a language I neither speak nor understand.
And halfway down the block, I literally ran into a former Hungarian student strolling toward me. He hugged me and said, “Karol, I was just thinking about you.”
I was back in my Hungarian hood experiencing the exhilaration of being in a foreign city that no longer feels foreign. After a good night’s sleep, I ambled down half-empty side-streets to the Central Market, a once cavernous train station that was now a bustling farmer’s market. Later, I was swept up by crowds on a busy boulevard leading to the Danube. And remembered how much faster Europeans walk than Californians! The pace in Budapest brings to mind a high-speed autobahn, while strolling in Los Angeles more closely resembles the steady slog of the 405 Freeway during rush hour.
I developed a theory that explains the difference, and stick with me, because in that theory resides a moral lesson for writers. Throughout the morning, I passed hundreds of people. But I did not see one person talking or texting on their cell. Not one.When I boarded a crowded tram at Kalvin ter for the square at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I did note two tourists on their cells. But the locals were gazing out the window, lost in the sweep of city scape.
I wondered if Hungarians pocket their cells because of the distances they travel on foot; maybe they want to keep their hands free for cigarettes or street food – my personal favorite being langos, warm fried bread bubbling with cheese. In Los Angeles, the farthest we walk is from a parked car to our destination. We cross streets, heads down, cell phones in hand, checking messages, Instagram, and funny cat videos. Because we can’t bear the thought of missing anything.
And in doing so, we miss everything.
The inner working of a writer’s life is defined by the interplay between experience and writing. But the backbone of experience begins with noticing. I decided to put my cell away for the rest of the trip. That night, I had an Aperol spritz at the tiny café next door and eavesdropped on a conversation by three expats. I pretended to be writing in my journal; instead, I wrote down what they said. Among their more memorable comments were the following two:
“In Scotland, God is harsh.”
“My five-year-old niece said that Daddy’s most senior but mommy’s in charge.”
I have no idea where those lines will lead or what they will unlock, but they are worth noting. Since most of my overheard conversations were in Hungarian, I began to focus not on what people said, but how they behaved. And suddenly, standing in lines no longer felt annoying; eating alone no longer seemed lonely. Both were opportunities to observe life I might miss if I was scrolling through my emails.
I amused myself by making up stories about the people I saw, like the woman in a half-empty restaurant who left her four friends at the bar to answer her cell. She crouched on a footstool near the door, her head bowed, her brow furrowed. She spoke in forceful staccato beats. I surmised she was either breaking up with a bad boyfriend or plotting the demise of a mortal enemy. I also considered that she might be in real estate and closing a deal.
But the point is when we cannot participate in language, our sensory awareness heightens. I found it so much easier to journal in Europe, not because I had more time. But because I had noticed more during the day and therefore had more to write about at night.
What marks us as writers is that we are a noticers of life. We are born observers. We are expert spies, listening in on other’s people’s lives. We not only pay attention to details, we wallow in them. But if we walk through life glued to our cell, we’re not in the world. And if we’re not in the world, we miss out on the stories that surround us in plain sight. So, as writers, let’s stow our cells. Ignore the pings. And aspire to become chroniclers of life because we took the time to notice the details.
Karol Hoeffner is the Chair of Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She has fourteen film credits including several Danielle Steel adaptations, a television mini-series Harem, movies-of-the-week based on true stories – TheMaking of a Hollywood Madam and Miss America: Behind the Crown. Among her other credits are the original movies, Voices from Within and Burning Rage. She has penned two young adult novels, All You’ve Got, and Surf Ed.