"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Merits of Eavesdropping

"It's not about the sandwich!" I was eating lunch on the patio of a local taqueria when I overheard a woman saying this into her cell phone. Instantly my inner writer started asking questions. Who is she talking to? What does she mean? What kind of sandwich is it? And, if it's not about the sandwich, then what is it about?

It's human nature to be curious about other people's lives, and as writers it's even more important that we pay attention and ask questions about the things around us. We want to be truthful in our writing, and to do that we must watch, smell, and listen. In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes:

"When you are not writing, you are a writer too. It doesn't leave you. Walk with an animal walk and take in everything around you as prey. Use your senses as an animal does. Watch a cat when he sees something moving in a room. He is perfectly still, and at the same time, his every sense is alive... This is how you should be when you are in the streets."

When you eavesdrop, you are using your animal senses. Listen to the way people talk. Do they have an accent? Does their tone of voice fit with what they are saying, or is there a deeper current of excitement, or irritation, or sadness behind their words? Eavesdropping is like taking a snapshot with a polaroid camera. You capture a moment, but you also get a glimpse of that person's personality, their past. It's not the whole picture. Not by a long shot. But it's better that way, because soon you'll have more snapshots then you know what to do with, and you can pick and choose, taking bits of personality here and there. By doing this, by learning from real life, you are closer than ever before to one of the things all writers strive for: the truth.

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