Writers And The Art of Eavesdropping

I once suggested to a class of young writers that if they were looking for writing ideas, they should practice the art of eavesdropping and listen for snatches of conversation that regularly float past. -Words of wonder that hang in the air, waiting to be rounded up and written down. The playground, the park, shopping malls are all great places to harvest such wondrous words.

A boy looked at me quizzically, before informing me his parents had told him it was impolite to listen in to other people’s conversations. I then recalled my own collection of parent tapes. I have a host of ancient messages swirling around in my brain, reminding me such things as,  -small children should not be listening to adult conversations!

I tried to re-assure him that as writers we enjoy a special exemption, so long as we are tactful when listening. He remain a little unconvinced.

Poet, Naomi Shihab Nye backed my position on this issue of listening in when she wrote:

‘ I have also kept notebooks of things other people say –even people I don’t know, in airports, on trains. Students in lunch room lines at schools. Sometimes these quotes are very mysterious, or intriguing, and will lead us somewhere else. I have a whole notebook filled with quotes by n old friend of mine named Kerry. When we have trouble thinking of a beginning for a piece of writing, we may struggle to come up with a line from our own minds; an idea. We might be better starting with a line we have heard, letting it be an invitation into a piece.

So, with this endorsement ringing in my ears, I will push ahead with my listening in; my eaves dropping. Writers write with their ears. Mine are tuned to the world around me and remain on alert, ready to receive.

It turns out that even bees eavesdrop. They have learnt to save time looking for pollen by avoiding visiting places depleted by other species. They listen in and use pheromones to alert them to such information.

Student writers should be encouraged to add eavesdropping to their ever increasing writer’s armory. We need to show them how we use it to inform our own writing, so they can make use of it when attempting to employ effective dialogue. My notebooks are full of wondrous sound bites. While having a coffee today, I overheard the following snatches of conversation.

‘What did you do with that pen I lent you two days ago?’

‘We used to collect spiders in jars from the different places we visited because our son was doing a project on spiders. How’s that for dedication?’

‘I love you, even if you are a derr-brain!’

‘I like being the boss. If I were in charge of the world, I’d fix things immediately.'

They are now stored in my notebook, awaiting deployment. 

‘Learn to listen wherever you are.’  
Ralph Fletcher.


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