Young writers often get the advice—and sometimes the assignment—to eavesdrop. I’ve always found this a little funny, since after all, don’t most of us spend large portions of our lives in conversation? Why do we need to listen in on somebody else’s conversation in order to learn about conversation? I wasn’t sure of the particular value of being outside of the conversation. So I decided to try it.
Like many a writer, I often find myself in coffee shops. But I also happen to live in a town that is a prime destination for people in recovery programs, who also naturally find themselves in coffee shops. And so one of the first things I heard was one highly caffeinated young guy saying to another, “It was a tell-tale sign when we did free hugs and Ted wouldn’t hug anybody.”
A few days later, walking out of the gym behind a young woman and her probably four-year-old son, I heard this exchange:
Toddler: I want a snack.
Mom: I have something in the car for you.
Toddler: What is it?
Toddler: What kind of juice?
Mom: Orange juice.
Toddler, with outright exuberance: Hallelujah, baby!
Later, sitting in a Barnes and Noble café near the customer service counter, I heard this:
Female customer, probably sixty-something, brandishing the bondage bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey: Do you think this would make a good gift?
Customer Service Rep: Well, I wouldn’t give it to someone you didn’t know well.
Next customer, a very thin woman around seventy in a denim mini skirt and high-heeled sandals: I need a ride home.
Customer Service Rep: But we’re a bookstore.
Meanwhile, someone I know posted on Facebook that he heard an old woman on the subway turn to the homeless guy next to her and say, “You smell like my husband. He’s dead.”
The website Overheard in NY is full of such gems. The truth, I guess, is that we’re a nation of eavesdroppers, whether we mean to be or not, and we find our fellow Americans pretty amusing.
There are lessons to be learned from these moments, sure. The guys in recovery had a very particular vocabulary that they shared and used fluidly. They were also way more intimate in the way they spoke to each other than most any other group of twenty-something males I have ever seen in conversation. And the child shouting Hallelujah for his juice was surely imitating adults he has heard. Kid talk is often funny for the way they use words correctly but in slightly inappropriate contexts. It was a touching scene, too, showing how well the mother knew her child, as well as how much he appreciated her knowledge. And living here in South Florida, I’ve certainly observed the infinite variety of the elderly (some of the stereotypes are true—the driving is pretty terrifying), but as with any demographic, the individuals are many and they can be found everywhere, saying just about anything.
So a student given the assignment to eavesdrop certainly could learn this or that about the ways we speak to each other and who we are. I might try an exercise where I have students copy down things they overhear over the course of a week, then share the best bits with the class so that the group can collectively determine what lessons can be learned from the snippets. And I could see creating a writing exercise based on any of the snippets. Part of what’s interesting about eavesdropping is how the absence of context sparks your imagination. What kind of kid “Hallellujahs” orange juice rather than a bag of chips? Who is Ted and why wouldn’t he participate in free hugs? Did that lady ever get home from Barnes and Noble? (Last I saw she was talking to a very patient cop.) And is that other lady pulling a “Rose for Emily” thing with her dead husband?
Eavesdropping works as an assignment because you can listen without the social obligation of participating in the conversation. You can sit in on conversations by demographics of people you might not otherwise speak to (assuming those demographics speak to each other in public places). But really I don’t know that it’s so important to go out and spy. Just now as I sit here writing, the guy fixing my air-conditioning said, “You can go ahead and close up the joint.” My house has never been called a joint before, but I like it.
I suspect the real value in the eavesdropping assignment is not so much that it encourages students to be spies, but that it encourages them to be observant. Go out into the world in your writerly identity, it says—and pay attention. The writer’s life is one big eavesdropping exercise, though there are some problems inherent in that, as well.
Jane Smiley’s hilarious satire of academia Moo takes down the eavesdropping assignment pretty effectively. One workshop student listens in on her roommate’s inane conversations and creates inane writing. Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s novel Harriet the Spy also makes clear the hazards of eavesdropping on your close comrades. They don’t care for it so much. Especially not when they are twelve years old.
So what is the difference between overzealous, shameful Harriet-the-Spying and being a writer? I guess in part it’s the dishonesty of it, of pretending not to be listening when you are listening, and it’s how you use the material you get hold of. It seems safe to take a snippet of conversation from a context you don’t know and make it your own story, less so to take your roommate’s private life and transcribe it.
But then again, I bet Harriet the Spy was a pretty great writer. What do you think? Is all material fair game?
[This post first appeared on LitBits on 7/5/12.]