Saturday, August 26, 2006

eavesdropping at large

The hour I'd set aside for this week's blog quickly vanished when a rush weekend assignment called me out of town. So I'd like to share an excerpt from one of my column's with you.~v

It’s Monday. A whole day where I make no business calls, do no research, no writing, no marketing, no e-mailing, no eavesdropping. Well ... almost no eavesdropping.

Ask any writer and they’ll tell you it’s habitual. That over the years you learn to have a pleasant and fully engaged conversation with a buddy, while simultaneously—and surreptitiously—scanning and sorting the conversations taking place across at least three neighboring tables in your local coffee shop.
Like the auto-tune on a radio, you’re able to hone in to what’s interesting, and might some day make good copy, versus what’s boring and can be skipped over. You learn to zone into the quietest mutterings with a bionic-like ear, sometimes learning far more about the strangers huddled on the sofa by the fire than you care to.

And I should know better. My Victorian-born grandmother, sadly long deceased, admonished me as a child when I blatantly listened to others' conversations, telling me it was impolite and that I should not be so rude. But despite my typically good British manners, I consider coffee shops exempt from this rule. Free-for-all. No holds barred.

Look around any cafe and you’ll see many people seemingly interacting in deep conversation; but then you’ll catch a tell-tale sign that at least one ear is subtly scanning the surroundings like a metal detector ready to beep over a possible gem. It might be a slight shift in body weight, a leaning to one side. A quick slide of the eyes to the animated couple sitting to the left. Or an out-and-out stare. Used to be that we sat and ‘people-watched’ at crowded malls or steamy cafĂ© windows. Now we sip double-double mocha’s and eavesdrop. And it’s not just writers.

A non-writer friend once shushed me because she couldn’t quite hear what the lady with the pink stockings was saying to the person of undetermined sex in the gray sackcloth. Another friend went to the bathroom just to get a closer look at the “moron” (her term) who kept griping at life’s unfairness, and how he wished he could experience what his wife felt as she breast-fed their new baby.

I concede that some writers take eavesdropping to a heightened level, but we do so with purpose. We’re always looking for new ideas. Fresh points of view. Tantalizing lines. Heady description and interesting tales and opinions—even if they do come from secondhand observation.

During the course of our regular coffee (or sanity) breaks, where we rally over the highs of a new project and bemoan the writer’s angst, my writer friends frequently grab their ever-present notebooks to jot down a word or a line before it slips into oblivion. No matter how much we tell ourselves we’ll remember that killer-phrase, we know we won’t, and in the absence of a notebook, a napkin or palm of the hand will suffice.

Conversations with a screenwriter friend are frequently stalled, while he punches whole dialogs into his slimline laptop. Once, while enjoying my favorite grande-nonfat-caramel machiatto, extra hot, extra sauce, he whispered a melodramatic “cut…” freezing me mid-frame while he captured the glee of three 5th-grade boys snorting latte down their freckled noses as they shared jokes, each one grosser, and apparently, funnier than the last.

Another time he raised a long artistic finger signaling that our chatter pause momentarily while he immortalized the sorry line that the guy with yellow bleached hair just hung on the girl with no lips. Obviously their first date, probably their last!

An author friend readily admits that when she’s feeling stuck, or even just bored, she’ll cruise a couple of coffee shops down by the beach hoping to find some good home-grown conversation to spawn the beginnings of an idea. While a talented colleague attributes his recent award-winning TV commercial entirely to a conversation he overheard between two teenage girls, while downing a triple-shot Espresso.

So, I’m sorry dear grandmother, but no matter how distasteful you’d find this revelation—and I know that you would—I make no apologies for my writer friends and their rude behavior!

Writers aren’t nosy for the sake of being nosy. They’re curious about people and about life. Always searching, always reaching, always exploring. Just as an artist looks for inspiration in the color of falling leaves and the texture of rain-washed cliffs, a writer’s imagination can be sparked by a word or an off-hand remark, and eavesdropping in coffee shops simply goes with the territory.

So how do I amuse myself while my cohorts snatch moments in time from the lives of complete strangers? Why, by eavesdropping, of course.

© 2004 Vicki St. Clair. Excerpt from Bibi's Beat column first published in Authentic Living.


Anonymous said...

I can so relate to this. Right on.

Yasmine Galenorn said...

Yep--eavesdropping is second nature to me. And from one line of bizarre conversation caught out of text can come the most fascinating of stories.


~E~ me--tea?


Deirdre said...

Oh how I love a good session of people watching and eavesdropping. And I'll admit it, I'm nosy,want to know what's going on and who's doing it. Since I've been writing incessantly I find great lines coming to me in the strangest places. Thanks for making me feel more normal.

Bibi said...

Of course we're normal Deidre! ;-Q

And I know, as an author Yazza, you e'drop for sure. Anon must be a writer too.

DesLily said...

thanks for dropping by my journal..

eavesdropping? moi?...heh. people with cell phones make it impossible NOT to eavesdrop!

Becca said...

I am so glad I'm not the only one who does this! I prefer to call it "people listening," which goes along with the "people watching" which I also indulge in quite frequently.

Great piece!

John Ivey said...

Wonderful article. Kudos to the author.

Kelly Wolfe said...

Boy am I guilty of doing this! I love people and their stories.

Good piece!


Kiyotoe said...

Awwwwww bibi, you let the cat out the bag, now all of my friends will watch what they say when they think I'm not listening.....

because I actually am!

Anonymous said...

oh--you got right inside my head! but i'm not confessing anything ;-0

MSU gal said...

I do all the time! Sometimes I think I am letting too much information into my head.

Bibi said...

I knew it! Now I KNOW I'm in good company. Cheers to you all!! ;-)

Beecham Motors said...

I once read that a writer, no matter how tragic the circumstances, always holds that sliver of ice in her heart, thinking as the tears fall.."I could use this in my writings!", lol. The same with conversations. hugs