My prose teacher at college lived an artist’s life. I am not going to name her or my college, because I adored her. But…she was part of what I called the “angry poets and suffering artists” group– politically correct and wildly self-righteous about it. A socially liberal and fiscally conservative misanthrope like myself didn’t stand a chance in that environment. They, meaning most of my instructors at the time, would probably cringe to think that a former student saw them in such a way, but it is liberating to state it now, and I doubt that any of them read this blog.
Anyway, back to my prose teacher, a woman who taught me to appreciate the basics of reading and writing in a whole new wonderful way. She demanded a constant stream of short stories and journal entries that all seemed like they were due within hours of the assignment. She also had an ongoing exercise that all of her students were required to do, regardless of the class. Every one of her students carried a small notebook–the kind that fits into a purse or your back pocket. The instructions were to write down snippets of conversations that you heard in the coffee shop or at the grocery store or wherever. Obviously you did this covertly and without intrusion.
Each week we all sat around and shared what we had recorded in our notebooks. The idea was to develop an ear for real dialogue. People speak much more inanely than what writer’s tend to conjure. Most of the conversations that I strained to hear, went something like this:
“Mama, can I have this?”
“Put that back.”
“Put that back right now”
“Arrggggh mama” — As the mother steps over the child screaming on the floor in the grocery store aisle, pretending that it is not hers.
I hoped for meatier conversations, but they just never came my way. Restaurants were always the best, because you could sit in a booth behind someone and have a tabletop to put your notebook on and write down what you heard. Once I heard a very upset man telling a woman that his hedgehog had died. I didn’t know if he was talking about a car or an animal and unfortunately he spoke so softly, I couldn’t hear all that much to of the conversation.
The other day I was getting my hair cut and I heard this from a woman with a dog:
“Don’t take it personally, he is much more interested in the food than he is in you. Can you sit Rosco? Can you sit?”
I waited for the dog to answer, but it never did.
The exercise of listening to how people speak is more difficult now than it was when I was in college. Everyone is texting or tweeting and I sometimes wonder what would happen if all of our cell phones just died one day and we had to look up, look into someone’s eyes and try to communicate. It would certainly make eavesdropping easier.