Want to be an amazing writer? Stalk your subjects

Originally published February 2016
George Perec’s little book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is surprisingly gripping. It’s about fifty pages of him sitting himself down on the Place St-Sulpice, recording — or trying to record — everything he sees.

The book begins a little slowly at first, with him simply transcribing everything in a neutral tone, but as the book continues Perec seems to loosen up, to enjoy the exercise more and insert more of his personality into it.


An example from Day 2, 19 October 1974, 2:00 PM, Tabac Saint-Sulpice:

All the pigeons settle on the plaza.
The lights turn red (they do this often)
Scouts (same ones) pass by the church again
An apple-green 2CV with a l’Eure-et-Loire registration number (28)
A bus. Japanese.
Gathering of some individuals in front of Saint-Sulpice. I can make out a man at the top of the steps, sweeping (is it the beadle?). I know there is going to be a wedding (from two customers who just, in fact, went over to attend it).
A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers) is weeping

Inspired by Perec’s Attempt, my creative writing class at the University of Kent decided to try our own version of the experiment. For an hour on February 11, 2016, we scattered ourselves throughout the square and recorded what we saw. The instructions were to write quickly, not searching for beautiful phrases or returning to correct something we’d written. Here are the first thirty minutes of my (unedited) results. Stick with it — things get rather interesting around 11:56.

Date: 11 February 2016 (Thursday)
Time: 11:40 AM
Location: Park bench


To my left a man sitting on a bench is finishing a pastry, maybe a croissant? He’s taken out his   phone but is looking at the opening elevator.


A man has come out of the elevator, walks through the park

Four people walk together, one holds a cane. He is older.


A smiling man looks at the pigeons. Hand in pockets.

A woman with heeled boots and a Marciano bag

There’s a man walking around the Place, headphones in his ears, hands in pockets


Man next to me puts something in gift bag (trash?) looks at watch, heads in one direction and   turns around

Man with dog goes in elevator

Same man with gift bag walks by again in original direction. He’s thrown away the bag. Now     he is behind me and goes off in the second direction


Woman with cane and yellow shopping bag walks by slowly.

Woman sits down next to me with empty pastry bag. She’s eating something out of a plastic tub, pasta perhaps, she’s holding the plastic spoon between her index an middle finger like a cigarette.



A father with a toddler runs through pigeons; they flutter. Toddler chases one, it flies away.11:46


Toddler has fallen down and is screaming. Father picks him up and tries to distract him with more pigeons, hands child over to mother.


Father is alone, rubs his face with his hand.

Boy has stopped screaming, on the ground again now watching a swarm of pigeons feasting on bird seed.


Woman with extremely high heels passes with pink helmet under arm

Father takes a photo (multiple? maybe video?) of his boy chasing the pigeons.

Two women pass speaking Asian language I can’t identify


Father of boy looks pleased with his video, walks past me. Mother is still holding child.

Girl with some kind of pink string in hand walks through crowd of pigeons, her hand is outstretched.


Man is still on phones, hands still in pockets.

A child on a beach to the right of me is screaming, different child from before. Mother wheels him away.


Woman with white hat takes photo of girl with pink stick in hands, looking at the pigeons.

Woman eating lunch next to me finishes her pasta and opens something else wrapped in plastic.


A different man in headphones, black beard, takes photos of the church. Something is barking on the other side of the fountain.

A woman with a head scarf is wheeling a rolling shopping bag along the square. Thing is still barking.


Man is still talking on phone, pacing around the square, twiddling with some bit of plastic in his hands.

Is that a homeless man with an ice cream cone? Or maybe he just doesn’t brush his hair.


A lone pigeon walks in front of me, another joins him.


There’s two bicycles leaning against the railing.

A woman with her phone out and a faux calico shopping bag.

Another woman, black overcoat, has stopped and looks at something in her hand. Her phone? Does she want directions?


A man is wearing a red and black checked coat. He is with a friend who’s lighting a cigarette. The friend gives him back the lighter. They walk towards me and blow smoke out of their mouths.


A large bearded man walks (with difficulty it seems) across the square

Behind me a bell is chiming. Too early.

A boy pulls his bike up behind me to park his bike.


The woman in the black coat still is looking for directions.


The église clock chimes.

It’s loud, booming. I can still hear pigeons and cars over it though.

A woman with glasses sits on a bench with a hand in her face, holding back her hair. She’s turned her body so she’s facing the church.


The woman in the black coat sits right next to me. Definitely a tourist. She asks me if I have a “mouchoir?” Then I don’t know what it is. She asks me if I don’t speak French. I say, “un peu, oui.” She looks unimpressed. Little does she know I’m writing about her. Perhaps she’s not a tourist after all but she


She asks me if I have a telephone. She doesn’t tell me why she needs it, I pull it out and then she asks another woman for her phone, but then the tourist (?) feels her own phone in her pocket. She pulls it out and is searching for something.


She calls someone on the phone, she wants wi-fi. She’s asking someone for wi-fi. She’s still just a foot away from me. She’s not done with me yet I feel. She has a tissue on the bench, wadded up, a bag with a silver ring on the zipper, another bag inside her coat on a long strap around her neck, and a camera around her neck as well. She also has a small slip of paper, maybe with an address on it. She’s wearing blue eye shadow. I’m not looking up at her anymore, thought, because I can’ t attract her suspicion. She’s calling someone else, and starts speaking again. Maybe she was on hold.


I’m staring at her shoes. Black suede with a heel, but wedges. I wonder if those are good walking shoes.


Now she sits down on the bench.

“Do you speak English?”
“Better than French?
“Do you have Internet access?”
“No I don’t, I’m sorry.”

She looks back at her phone and is still searching for something.


Amazingly, the man with the ear buds is still on the phone He’s gesturing.

Woman calls someone else, asks for a password for some kind of wi-fi.

Oh là là, ce n’est pas gentil” and she hangs up, or is hung up on. I feel guilty but I don’t really have Internet access.


A man on a bench to the left of us is eating something wrapped in plastic. Baseball cap.


The woman actually has two phones, an iPhone and a smaller one, it looks older. It’s small, black, unhelpful. I’m not sure why she doesn’t try to go to a café where they might have internet.


She picks up her bag and walks across the square. She leaves behind her tissue.

Image credit.
1. twiga269 … / flickr 
1: Chris Chabot / flickr 
2: Michael / flickr

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