November 27th, 2009

Eavesdropper

I’ve already admitted on National Radio that I sometimes turn off my iPod on the TTC but leave my earbuds in, the better to innocuously listen in on the conversations of my fellow riders. Sometimes I don’t even have the earbuds; I just listen. Like an evening earlier this week, when the fellow behind me on the bus was arguing vehemently via cellphone.

The topic was whether the person on the other end would come to his house that evening. It was already rather late, and the guy was still on the bus and not in said house and so I wondered, is this a booty call? Those aren’t usually so contested, I don’t think.

Eventually, I worked out that the reason the other person (pretty sure) a female wouldn’t come over was that he would not permit her to smoke or drink on the premises. She felt this was a dealbreaker; he felt that was stupid and she shouldn’t have been smoking or drinking anyway. He said, “I’m gonna let you think about this. You think what you want to do and whether that is a valid reason for not doing what you want to do, and then you call me back.”

She called back almost immediately, and the conversation repeated itself, almost exactly (on his end, anyway). Then I think he noticed me listening (I wasn’t looking at him, but I had closed my book) and went and sat somewhere else. So I don’t know how it ended.

At the university discussion also this week, students asked me about using eavesdropped quotations in my work, which is actually something I never do. Or maybe almost never–I can’t think of a time I have, but the rule isn’t terribly rigid.

I listen a lot to what people say because I want a wide range of voices in my head (only ones I invite, obviously). I want to know a range of expressive styles, accents, lisps, slang, grunts, etc. I also want to know what a wide range of people think about stuff–some people feel it is reasonable to call an SO at 10:30 at night and demand that she not only come right over but abide by house rules. Ok. No one’s ever asked me to do that and none of my friends have ever mentioned it, so if I didn’t eavesdrop, how would I know?

Life is circumscribed, always, and in many ways that is good. My friends and family have a lot in common with me–interests, certainly, but also education levels and vocabulary, age, socio-economic status, etc.–which only helps us understand each other. But there is a limit to the vocal variations in that: We don’t all speak the same way, but there is a great deal of overlap.

I think, to be the writer I want to be, I need a broader pallatte than just people I happen to know. So I listen, and learn about how the world is and how sentence patterns can evolve. If a person says “moving forward” instead of “from now on”, uses “knife” as a verb, uses “my work” as a location not a project, insists that he is only “being true to my values” in everyday conversation–well, that tells me so much about how they are in life, and I crave being able to use that sort of shorthand in my work.

I don’t transcribe or quote partly because I don’t feel quite right about it; no one will ever track down that guy from the bus, but I’ll feel bad that I stole his words (although stealing his style of speaking is better how, exactly?) More than that, though, I don’t quote because I’m writing fiction and it is very very rare that the demands of the plot and characters I’m writing about will take in unedited words from a real conversation. More than just being true, story dialogue needs to be true to the characters, which is why I never take more than a general sense of rhythm and style from the folks I listen in on.

Here’s another one: At the Yonge & Bloor subway station newsstand, at rush-hour, among many other people a teenage girl is looking carefully at all the candies. She picks up a pack of tropical Jolly Ranchers and holds them up to the cashier.

“1.95 please.”
“Do you have–“
“What?”
“Do you have the chewy Jolly Ranchers?”
“What?”
“They’re like these, only chewy. I don’t see them here.”
“I– If you doan see them, we doan have them. Do you want those?”
“Could you look? If you have them?”
“We don’t– Ok.” [counting me, there were approximately 10000 people in line, but the cashier was so confused she went to the other candy rack and came back momentarily] “No, we doan. You want those?”
“Oh, no. Do you know what other stores might have them? In the subway?”
“I– No, I’m sorry. No idea.”
“Oh, well…ok.”

Of course, one could argue that I am quoting here, on the blog, but here I am also giving attribution to the speaker, insofar as I am able. Please hold no illusions that I am able to make this stuff up.

I don’t know these voices are doing in my head besides going into the general mishmash file called “experience.” But I don’t have a tv, so this is pretty good entertainment for me.

RR

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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