Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Vital Tool of Observation for the Writer

by Craig von Buseck @CraigvonBuseck

Since journalism school, I have carried a notebook with me to make observations. In the early days, it was a small, spiral bound paper notebook that fit in my shirt pocket. Today, it’s a series of files in my smart phone. Whatever form it takes, a writer should have a place where she or he is taking notes of what is observed as life goes by.

The writer’s notebook also serves as a repository for creative thought. Every so often, an interesting or charming thought or phrase will cross my mind. Sometimes it is connected to one of my front burner projects. Other times it could be a phrase for a back burner—or even a back, back burner project. Sometimes it may just be a curious or creative phrase looking for a project to enhance. In any case, it’s imperative for the writer to capture these thoughts and add them to their organized notebook.

Organization, of course, is the key to retrieval of these ideas. I have my notes organized into topics like “Article Ideas,” “Book Ideas,” “Screenplay Ideas,” “Story Ideas,” “Possible Phrases,” “Possible Dialogue,” “Observations,” “Theater Script Ideas,” and so forth. The beautiful thing about keeping these captured thoughts on your smart phone is that they are easily searchable. In addition to text, you can also capture photographs, video, or audio notes to keep as idea starters.

When approaching the end of a writing project, I will peruse these different folders in search of an idea or concept that captures my heart and my imagination for my next endeavor. These captured thoughts can either move up to a back, back burner or “starter” project; to a back burner “development” project that I add to from time-to-time; and sometimes, they will jump to the front of the queue, as the British would say.

Most of the projects I actually work on to completion have been simmering on the back burner for years, but they may start with a simple captured thought from my writer’s notebook.

Observing Life
My early writing mentor, Dr. Bob Slosser, had been a New York Times reporter and editor. He taught me that in order to be a good writer, one had to be an observer of life. Then, the writer needed to “journal” what is observed. 

In addition to ideas, dialogue, and interesting phrases, it’s important for the writer to capture poignant moments in life to be used down the road in various projects. As I did my residency for hospital chaplaincy, one of my teachers reminded me that the hospital is a treasure trove of human interest stories.

“What about the hipaa laws protecting the privacy of the patients?” I asked. She said that over time, I would see similar cases that could be melded together in order to tell the story while still protecting the privacy of the patients. And, of course, the names are always changed.

One sees the best and the worst of humanity in the fascinating laboratory of life known as a hospital. During that time, I recorded in my notes one of the stories that stood out, which I will never forget.

Peace in the Valley
“Why has God done this to me?” The question was posed by an angry woman lying in a hospital bed. I had been paged by the nurse and asked to meet with this lady, though I was given no information concerning what she wanted to talk about.

“I’m only in my late 50s,” she continued, “but I’m stuck in a body that’s getting weaker and weaker. While my friends are out having fun and enjoying their lives, I’m trapped in this body and in this bed.”

There are many ways I could have responded. I could have told her to “buck up” and stop complaining. I could have told her that “God works in mysterious ways.” I could have told her that she could get better if she only had enough faith. Or I could have told her that everything was going to be OK.

None of those are good responses. The best response was to listen and allow her to pour out her heart.

When she was done, I simply acknowledged her pain and said I was sorry that she had such a difficult burden to bear. I assured her of God’s love for her, despite the health challenges she was facing.

As we continued to talk, I reminded her that there were many people in the Bible who experienced different kinds of pain—some physical, some emotional—and they also brought their sorrow, grief, and questions to God. I shared how David often cried out to God in the Psalms. I assured her that God didn’t mind her sharing truthfully from her heart.

After nearly an hour, she ended our conversation with, “Thank you, I needed to share that. Despite my pain, I still believe.” We prayed together and I said goodbye.

Two days later, I received an emergency page to come back to this woman’s room. She was actively dying and she had no family or friends with her. When I arrived in her room, she had already fallen into a coma. The nurse was getting ready to give her some morphine to ease her pain.

I took hold of her hand. “It’s Chaplain Craig. I was here a couple days ago. I want you to know you’re not alone. I’m here, the nurse is here, and God is here with us.”

I started to sing hymns that were stirring in my heart. When I began “Amazing Grace” the nurse said, “Oh, that is my favorite. Can I sing along?” “Of course,” I responded and the two of us sang together. 

When we finished singing, I quoted what is probably the best known of David’s writings—the 23rd Psalm. When I spoke the comforting words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…” this dear woman—who had not moved at all up until that point—suddenly squeezed my hand.

I experienced then what I had had been taught in my chaplain training—people in a coma can often hear and understand what is happening around them.

Though she had questioned God in the midst of her difficult trial, she had held on to her faith. In the end, it was God’s Word and His presence that brought her comfort as she said goodbye to this world.

I was honored to be there for this precious moment in the life of this dear woman. I was blessed to witness the power of God’s Word as it brought peace in the valley of the shadow of death. I have shared this story many times, both in writing and in speaking. I’m able to do so because I wrote the details early in my journal so that I would not forget and could easily find them for future projects.

Turn your smart phone into a notebook and capture the stories and thoughts that pass through your creative mind every day! Your writing will be strengthened and your impact on the hearts of your readers will be enhanced.


The Vital Tool of Observation for the Writer - @CraigvonBuseck on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and the Managing Editor for His new books are Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant, a biography of the final two years in Grant’s life, and the companion, Forward! The Leadership Principle of Ulysses S. Grant. Learn more at

Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and the Managing Editor for Learn more at


  1. Well said Dr. Craig. I'm not sure if I'll ever completed every idea in my Idealog (an Excel workbook where I keep my ideas; after moving them from Post-It notes), but I've come to consider that maybe God knows I'll have eternity to work on it. Loved your post sir.

  2. Craig,

    What an insightful article that you've written. In a world where we are bombarded with information and ideas, you have given us practical ways to capture those ideas and use them in the future with our writing. More than that you've also included moving personal stories to illustrate it.

    With Gratitude,

    author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

  3. Dr Craig, I loved the way you explained the details of how you organize your thoughts, then brought me to tears, and then calmly finished by saying: this was made possible by taking notes :) thankyou!

  4. I guess I'm behind the times...I hadn't thought of using my phone as a file system. What a great idea. I do keep a notebook with me at all times, even one at my bedside and one by my shower. You never know when the Lord will give you an awesome thought that may lead into something big. All books start with a single idea. I'm going to figure out this phone file thing. Thanks for leading me forward!

  5. Thanks Craig, for some very valuable and useful ideas. I like to journal but it would be hard to find any particular thing I’ve written. And having them on the phone would be handy. Here’s to making more calluses on my finger.