Observation Journal: The Caudwell manoeuvre

I’m glad I’m up to this page of the observation journal, because I was just telling some people about this exercise last night. (Also, hey! it’s a rare non-Flyaway post.)

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a list of pairs of opposites, each with a one-word associated term, and then a description of each word using its opposite's term as a guide.

Left page: Gearing up for O-Week, university stereotypes, and remarkable feats of dexterity. Also, how much easier it is to remember to review pages when they are all thick and textured from paint.

Right page: I might have mentioned Sarah Caudwell once or twice before. One of the many things she did in Thus Was Adonis Murdered was to have her narrator take — as if it were the most obvious thing in the world — the stereotypical behaviours that many books would expect of a young male lawyer loose on holidays and ascribe them to a young female lawyer, offer no explanation, and play it completely seriously. There’s a distinct Wodehousian strain of comedy in the book, but this aspect startled me because the character of Julia was suddenly just like so many women I know, whom I so rarely see in books. It was endearing and problematic and hilarious and lively. (Another interesting study in this sort of thing is to read Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (a.k.a. Midnight Riot) immediately after Nicci French’s Blue Monday.)

So this exercise was simply to take a pair of commonly-associated opposites (whether they should be opposites or even exactly how to define them is a separate question — this exercise was playing with what I saw most frequently in books etc), pick their most common (even offensively common) stereotypical traits, and then swap the two. For example, assuming it to be very obvious, to the point of it being a stale joke, that men are always buying shoes promptly describes many of my (basketball-playing, shoe-collecting) relatives, a great many put-together and fashion conscious office workers, and nearly every man I know with a boot-centric job (construction, farming, military).

Or describing a cat, for example, as loyal, a little bit inclined to drool, and friendly although not precisely intellectual suddenly describes so many particular and specific cats I know, while elusive, aloof, independent and mysterious dogs are also far more often to be found in the world than they are in books.

A close-up of the right-hand page of the observation journal, headed "Because of Sarah Caudwell & flipped stereotypes played straight". Then a list of pairs of opposites, each with a one-word associated term, and then a description of each word using its opposite's term as a guide.

This was the first lesson of the exercise: that the stereotype conjures only the stereotypical template (and this has its uses, especially as a form of shorthand). Flipping the stereotype, however, suddenly brought to mind living individuals (or at least highly temperamental vehicles). (This is related to the exercise in A Discovery of Headstrong, Obstinate Girls.)

The second lesson is that the flipped stereotypes almost always start to resonate off each other. Individually, they create a deeper characterisation as well as an often unexpected appreciation of reality; together, they begin to hint at a story. (The marauding Julia, in Caudwell’s novels, is after all offset by the beautiful and virtuous Ragwort).

A sketch of a bush turkey.
Bush turkey

Art/writing exercises:

  • Make some pairs of obvious (or not so obvious) opposites. Dogs and cats. Day and night. Ship and shore.
  • Quickly note down one or two words (or textures, or identifying visuals) commonly associated with each.
  • Flip the descriptions between each pair.
  • Write a sentence or two (or do a sketch) using those features as the most obvious descriptors for that person/creature/object/concept (fine-limbed, doe-eyed, fleet and elusive dragons, and snorting and furious knife-footed deer; days shadowy and mysterious, haunted by terrors, and nights brimful of light and flowers, markets and industry).

9 thoughts on “Observation Journal: The Caudwell manoeuvre

  1. Pingback: August post round-up | Kathleen Jennings

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  6. Pingback: Observation Journal: Ridiculous (but charming!) situations | Kathleen Jennings

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  9. Pingback: Observation Journal — First Sentences | Kathleen Jennings

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