Thoughts on How and Why Writers (Should) Eavesdrop

7:43 AM – At Panera. The cashier girl did not intend to mislead me by wearing an ex-co-worker’s name-tag, so I did not feel sheepish for addressing Kelly as Brady, but I did say the former name appeared more fitting. Also, I got a free sandwich, but not in response to my name compliment.


“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days – listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you’ve taken in, all that you’ve overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.) . . . In any case, dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping, that the author is not getting in the way.”  – Anne Lamott / from Chapter 9 : Dialogue

I, too, once was on Facebook. And I loved Facebook. I still love Facebook. My great confession held before you like a tender, barely breathing squirrel trampled by a diesel truck sporting a giant set of plastic testicles is that I still occasionally climb onto my wife’s Facebook account and ride the “News Feed” for a treacherous eight seconds of titillation and ennui. A quick Facebook scroll offers the great communal juxtaposition of vitality and banality, a social language both glorious and unnecessary, such as the declaration from LT’s FB friend last night: “The moon is bright as hell. It’s like that bastard is next door.” Poetry truly surround us.

I’ve been told that my Facebook status updates were fun, at times even funny. This is kind praise. It’s nice to know people felt entertained by something I once enjoyed. I also find it interesting that my status updates receiving the most Likes and Comments were observations gathered in hallways from the community college where I work. A fast shuffle to the men’s room or the water fountain, with ears open and eyes scanning the lounging crowds, unearthed comedy gold. Like the time I overheard a guy yelling into his phone that somebody owed him “ass-more money”. I’m not even sure how one counts an “ass-more” of something. In fact, I would never have even known “ass-more” could be a measurable denomination had I not eavesdropped one ass-more conversation that day.

My Intro to Sociology professor at Ouachita Baptist University had two obsessions he pressed on us weekly: the internet and eavesdropping.

This was the Spring of 1996. The Internet was still new. And Dr. Mills assigned a weekly “Surf Journal”, requiring us to spend 30 minutes a week surfing the Internet and then recording our findings. Our only requirements were to avoid Adult material and to sketch our initial search term as the journal entry title. Dr. Mills was interested how a term such as “Substance Abuse” could lead to some dillweed’s online dissertation arguing Bob Dylan’s Zionist roots entitled “Tangled Up In Jew.” (That one was real. I vividly remember that journal entry.) Connecting those dots became the crux of class discussion, which, in those days, was more interesting than surfing the Internet’s grey and pink pixilation forming legible language and distinguishable photographs across the monitor at the rate of drying paint.

Dr. Mills also assigned a weekly eavesdropping journal. The requirements were, in hindsight, brilliant. Once a week we were to sit in a crowded public place and record every phrase, every utterance, every tone we heard. Full conversations were the ultimate goal. Dr. Mills also wanted us to create character sketches, recording gender, age, race, unique traits, and anything else we might determine interesting or helpful to understanding the conversation, ie. did they have children, did they look rich or poor, did they swear much or speak in false tones, did they behave in accordance with particular gender stereotypes? Again, our findings built the crux of class discussions, which often proved more interesting than the eavesdropping.

Thanks to my friends Seanboy and John Barber, I have become something of a Podcast enthusiast. I particularly enjoy Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing, Chris Hardwicke’s The Nerdist, and Aisha Tyler’s Girl-On-Guy. In each show you have a condensed and finely packaged version of what Dr. Mills sent us to find each week: people (usually comedians) engaging in “meaningful” conversation. Yes, the argument can be made that Podcasts are staged conversations intended for eavesdropping. Guards are held high, intimacy is rarely breached, and A-games have been brought. Still, there are moments on these Podcasts when the interview derails format, the audience gets ditched, and a legitimate conversation or debate occurs. It’s a wonderfully distilled product: all that dialogue, all that spoken language recorded and whittled into digital memory. It’s eavesdropping at its finest.

I’ve also found Podcasts better than Audiobooks for consuming spoken language, for mentally downloading expression and reaction. Audiobooks are great, but Audiobooks endure editorial scrutiny. What you want are those great moments when Alec Baldwin interrupts guests with a self-gratifying eruption or Aisha Tyler squeals with geeked-out laughter or Chris Hardwicke riffs a lame joke, or when any of their guests do something similarly unplanned or unscripted and it doesn’t sound rehearsed. I’m not foolish enough to believe that we hear any of these people authentically as they speak with their families or as they would conduct themselves privately in a tucked-away booth at Panera, but Podcasts still offer a goldmine of dialogue.

According to iTunes, I’ve listened to “Misery Business” by Paramore 118 times. This does not include plays of “Misery Business” I’ve relished via compact disc or my iPod. In all honesty, and as much as I love that song, Haley Williams and Co. are no longer getting me closer to the goal of creating good sentences or good dialogue. But I’ve got over an hour of Nick Offerman on The Nerdist discussing woodworking and Ron Swanson-isms saved in my Podcast folder, and you better believe that’s a voice I’m itching to annotate.


About Kiki Malone

Girding till the break of dawn.
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9 Responses to Thoughts on How and Why Writers (Should) Eavesdrop

  1. Latonya says:

    That last line is so well placed. I love that you placed Swanson and itching in the same sentence.

  2. Chad says:

    Tangled Up in Jew was one of my favorite websites of the ’90s web. They had an enlightening, pre-blog, blog-like site in which they traced all the potentially ‘jewish’ actions of Dylan at every concert or public appearance. One time, for example, Dylan smiled when given a loaf of Challah bread by someone in the audience (someone who was a writer for TUJ).

    Eavesdropping is fun whether you’re a writer or not. Everyone does this, yes? But the writer stores the info gleaned from eavesdropping for future reference. The writerly goal when using this info is to create in the reader the same joy of eavesdropping w/o making it seem like the reader is eavesdropping.

    Whatever that means.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Yes, Chadverb. We all eavesdrop. But I’m so shamelessly trying to initiate myself into the cult (of personalities) known as writers that I’m forcing writerly-significance into every tiny, insignificant life action. Hell, you’d be amazed and ashamed at the literary meaning I can afford to the consumption of a Ding Dong.

      • Chad says:

        Ha! Somehow I missed this reply the first go around. I would not be amazed or ashamed at your interpretation of Ding Dong consumption. You’ve read a enough of my writing to know that I am an irredeemable navel gazer. I will find literary meaning in the smallest moth escaping a smoking man’s pie hole.

  3. mwerntz says:

    I eavesdrop, but to my shame, it’s usually on undergrads and usually to be thankful I’m not 19 anymore.

  4. kmriad says:

    Sharif listens to Joe Rogan’s podcast and loves it. He gets super big, super intelligent people on his podcast and says to them, “I can’t understand a word of what you’re saying but what you’re talking about sounds kinda cool, can you explain it for me?” And they have these crazy involved conversations with lots of questions that get answered.

  5. Janna says:

    I took that class, too. It must’ve been the year before you though. We never did anything that interesting, still it was way better than intro to psych. Would that I could return to OBU and only take English classes for four years. Damn.

    BTW, you still got the funny, honey, even if you ain’t on fb no more.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Word, J. More than anything, I want to retake Susan Wink’s Advanced Grammar with Corey and Myles again and then sit for days at Waffle House diagramming Journey lyrics and the conversations of Caddo Valley residents straight in from checking the trout line. I did not take that class seriously, and I feel I missed a true gem.

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