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Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Listening In

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 27, 2016

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?

Mom: Juice.

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.] 

Several years ago, a student of mine (we’ll call him James) stuck around after my introductory fiction-writing class because something was on his mind. This was around week three of the semester. He’d seemed highly engaged in the course so far, but today he was being quiet.

We waited while everyone else cleared out. I smiled reassuringly. He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. When the room was empty except for us, I asked, “So what’s up?”


He told me that he would never be able to complete the exercise I’d assigned that day.


I had asked students to brainstorm some interesting details from their pasts, and to incorporate these details into a scene of fiction. The idea was to get students to use pre-existing knowledge as a way to give their work more authority.


I asked James what the trouble was.


He shrugged. “There’s nothing remotely interesting about any part of my life,” he said. Then, so I’d understand his dilemma, he elaborated. “I grew up on a farm, in a town of fifteen people, where everybody is related. The next largest town was ten miles away and there were only fifty or sixty people there.”


I told him that to me, a guy who grew up in densely populated New Jersey, his life sounded completely fascinating.


“No, it isn’t,” he said. And to prove his point, he started telling me about the various cows that his family owned.


“I’ve always wanted to milk a cow,” I told him.


He shook his head and tried not to laugh at me. “They weren’t milk cows.” Clearly, I should have known better, but my knowledge of cows is limited to Far Side cartoons and Chick-fil-A commercials.


It won’t surprise you to learn that James was able to use his knowledge of a) farming, and b) living in a very remote area, to create a scene that was fascinating and sophisticated.


Each of our students is an expert at something. Their knowledge and experience runs deep; often the trouble is that they believe their knowledge to be universal and their experience to be common or uninteresting—until told otherwise.


I’m not advocating that students only “write what they know.” I regularly steer students away from writing slightly fictionalized accounts of events in their own lives. Still, I’ve found that it can be very useful for them to put some of what they know—particularly, unusual things that they know really well—into the stories and poems they write. Doing so gives them confidence and their work a startling amount of authority.


[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on October 3, 2011.]] 

Joanne Diaz

Riding the Metro Haiku

Posted by Joanne Diaz Expert Sep 13, 2016

The undergraduate classroom might seem like the last place to introduce students to archival materials. We have so many other commitments—to coverage of historical periods, to literary interpretation and theory, to improving student writing—that it might seem like an extra activity that might simply take up too much class time. However, students can and should learn about the cultural conventions that affect the transmission of texts, and I would argue that their close readings of these texts is actually central to their understanding of what poems, plays, and short stories are and how they work. Reading various versions of a text can actually get undergraduates—and teachers—to work toward a clearer and more effective definition of close reading. The results of my students’ research consistently demonstrate that textual studies can actually inspire close reading and help students generate the questions that they can use in a variety of literature courses.


Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century. It also provides us with a short, easy way into discussing archival materials. This is how the poem appears in most literature:


In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.


Immediately, students are engaged with the poem. The title locates us in Paris in the early 1900s, when the Metro system was still a wonderful and terrifying new symbol of modernity. The students are haunted by the “apparition” of the faces, stuck underground like the ghosts of the dead. And they like the surprising comparison between these ghostly faces and the petals on a bough. They see the commentary on the alienation of the modern metropolis. Formally, they can recognize Ezra Pound’s debt to the Japanese haiku tradition (and, as Ezra Pound wrote in his essay titled “Vorticism,” this poem is indebted to the haiku tradition), and the poems mathematical precision: the equation between faces and petals, the loose iambic pentameter of each line.


In fact, this poem is so accessible—or at least it seems to be—that it’s easy to forget that it is the result of a variety of editorial decisions, and that the transmission of the text across time actually transformed the poem. This is how the poem looked when it was first published in 1913, in Poetrymagazine (To see the original 1913 publication of Pound’s poem, you can go to this link on the Poetry Foundation website:



The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd  :

Petals       on a wet, black    bough  .

Ezra Pound


In this version, the title is boldly announced in all caps, the poet’s name appears just beneath the text, and the poem itself seems to be deeply concerned with innovations in typography and design. In this context, the words are transformed by the use of white space between them; and by the change from a semicolon to a colon. With a semicolon, Pound joins two independent ideas, but with this use of the colon, Pound suggests that the second line is an appositive, or description, of the first.


In class, we discuss the tiny differences between these two versions, and I ask students which version they like best—not which is best—and I don’t tell them which version has actually become the standard version that appears in literature anthologies until the very end of the class period. As they work through each version, they have to pay attention to the tiny, seemingly superficial choices in layout and punctuation that they might overlook in a reading of just one version in our anthology. In doing so, they are engaging in a critical discussion, even if they don’t know it yet. In recent years, bibliographical scholars have shown how such “accidentals” as punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and overall typographical design contribute to meaning in significant ways. In this example from Ezra Pound, students see that these choices in appearance are indeed substantive, even emotional.


[This post originally appeared on LitBits on November 2, 2011.]]