Friday, November 18, 2011

Snooping Through Life

Week of November 13—Gathering Ideas
Friday, November 18—Snooping Through Life

I eavesdrop. Yes, I listen in on the conversations of others. My hearing is intensified when something is not my business. It may be a medical condition for all I know. I am not a nosey person (really), I’m just an eavesdropper.

I can repeat entire conversations and even reproduce the voices of the speakers. Of course, if a conversation is not interesting, you’re safe. I’d tune you out in a heartbeat. But let there be one word, one phrase, one sentence that interests me, and I’m hooked.

There was the time I was in the grocery store and heard a woman tell her husband (with great disgust), “Sometimes you are such a man!” Or the fourth grader I overheard on the bus ramp telling other kids, “People with blue eyes are devils.” Or the man being interviewed by a TV news reporter who said, “That tornado did not sound anything like a train. There was no clickety-clack, clickety-clack, woo-woo at all.”

I love being in a crowded airport and floating from conversation to conversation, each telling a different story, and all being told simultaneously. The experience is like visiting the TV department at an electronics store with all the TVs turned on to different stations. Sensory overload of the best kind!

I think (or hope) many of these bits of conversation can be used in my writing. For instance, when I overheard a fourth grader say: “Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m a rain baby, you know. So is my grandfather. We were both born on rainy mornings.” I immediately started planning a story based on the idea. Or when I heard Granny Raney tell my mom, “Your Uncle Clifty never had a name ‘til he went to school. We always called him Brother ‘til then. Still do.” I’ve worked on the draft of that story for years.

Ralph Fletcher writes:

     “Writers are fascinated by talk, obsessed with what people say and how they say it, how they interrupt themselves, the words they repeat, the way they pronounce or mispronounce words . . .
     Keep your ears alert to the conversations of strangers wherever you are and pay attention to what strikes you. You don’t need to write down the whole conversation, often you end up just writing a sentence or phrase in your notebook.”

From: A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer within You by Ralph Fletcher, pp. 59-62

Ok, I’m off the hook, because Ralph says writers are supposed to listen to other people’s conversations. But there's another problem. I am also a people watcher. Observing the gate and meter of a person’s walk, a facial expression, or an unintentional fashion statement can tell me loads about a person. (Or, at least I can infer loads about them.)

When I had booths in an antique mall in Nashville we often had country music singers come in to shop. I loved following them (from a respectable distance) as they went from booth to booth. I watched the way these “famous” people picked up items and looked at them, their facial expressions, their walks, their mannerisms. Then I would rush back to the counter and act it out for Carolyn and Margaret who worked up front.

I’m hoping all my “inquisitiveness” will help out when I am developing characters, writing dialogue, or showing my voice through my writing. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on listening and keeping an eye peeled for anything interesting.

It’s Your Turn!
1. You have my permission—start eavesdropping and people watching.
2. Keep notes of what you hear and see. Then see what you can weave into your writing.


Cheryl Mansfield said...

When I people watch I like to make up stories about their lives, or current situations based on their body language and speech, etc.

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Sometimes even the 'not interesting' conversations are valuable too. For example, watching a mother with a new baby. The facial expression, cooing noises, rocking motions, etc. can be helpful bits to make a character seem more realistic when you include those details in your writing.

But yes, I would get more inspiration from the exotic eavesdropping!

Leslie Gorin said...

Eep, Rob, what you've described is so totally me! I'm constantly studying people, and imitating the way they talk and move (when they're not there, of course :P). I'm quite sure that's what got me started drawing when I was a kid. Drawing people, writing about them--all part of the same affliction, I'm sure!

vjc said...

I love people watching!! I especially love people watching in a place where I'm not likely to bump into those same people again. Sometimes whatever moment I catch them in leads them to become such a complete character in my thoughts that I fear seeing them again will upset my carefully constructed scenes. I love antique portrait photos for the same reason - I can tell their story without contradiction :). Some people I want to know their story, other people I do NOT!

patientdreamer said...

Actually you have just given me a great idea on where i can get more, if thats possible.
On the way to work i listen to 2 men and a women on a radio station who love telling us what they did on the weekend or hilarous situations they got themselves into or what they saw on the way to work. mmm ... I remember two already from yesterday that would make great ideas for stories... gee, thanks for that.
People watch, yes I do that to...