You're in a public eating place and something interesting is happening at the next table.
"Stop staring!" says your companion. "It's rude to stare."
For an inveterate people watcher, this caution can be thoroughly frustrating.
I've been watching videos of Alan Bennett's creations for TV and film in a BBC collection. Most of them are pretty grim. One of the more light-hearted is Dinner at Noon, a "film essay" about Mr. Bennett's ten-day stay at the Crown Hotel, Harrogate. Some of the scenes show him eavesdropping on the hotel guests' conversations and surreptitiously observing groups, individuals and couples with great interest from an armchair in a corner of the lounge. If anyone there had been aware such intense scrutiny it must have seemed quite disconcerting. But for the sake of that brilliant production––and indeed for the sake of all of Mr. Bennett's writing––it was necessary for him to be so observant. He seems fully aware that his creativity is an intrusion into other people's lives and he even makes capital of this fact: another of his plays, Our Winnie, where a young woman makes use of her encounter with a mentally handicapped girl to further her career as a photographer, is a comment on the irony, the implicit excuse being that work like hers does at least draw the public's attention to something that may need attention.
The writer / photographer / film director as spy! Why are there so many detective stories or spy stories out there? Because the creators of them thoroughly identify with their subject. You can't tell a good story unless you've dug out the background, spied on people, and picked up snippets of usable dialogue. Writers are first and foremost close observers. The good ones have a sliver of ice in their hearts besides; they have learned to observe life with detachment, without sentimentality.
Last night I went to a concert (which I'll describe in my next blogpost) and when I came home it suddenly struck me why I find concerts so thoroughly satisfying. Apart from the music, they give me a perfect, legitimate excuse to stare at people and observe their interactions and the expressions on their faces––often (because I try to sit as close to the front as I can) at very close quarters––without the fear of seeming rude. Indeed the whole point is for the performers to be stared at and listened to, for every nuance to be appreciated. No doubt that's the reason why I like watching films so much, too.