Sunday, May 15, 2011

Here it is, Tim. You can stop bugging me now.

My last post, the one I wrote waaaay back last week about overhearing my tipsy neighbor and making a story out of his (shouted) conversation, struck a nerve with my friend, Nancy. A good nerve, by the way.

You see, about a year ago, a very similar thing happened to me--I was walking through Johns Hopkins Hospital (because that's where I work) and I overheard about five seconds of a phone conversation. for whatever reason, my ear caught it and then my brain went to work. I just happened to be walking back to my office and by the time I got there, I pretty much had a (very) short story written.  I scribbled it down and over the next week made a few minor edits. That was it. Sent it off to a few journals and it should show up in Echo Ink Review one of these days.  Simple as that.  When Nancy read my post from last week, she reminded me that I've done this in the past and suggested that this approach might be something to explore/think about. . I hope she doesn't mind, but I'll copy a paragraph from her email here:

Not only will it help your writing because it really gets you writing, but it also raises some of the questions you want to confront with your blog. I mean, why can you sit down and immediately write a 4-page first draft when you overhear something that catches your imagination?  Why do these stories come to you so quickly?  Do you see the whole story quickly?  or do you keep your pencil moving and the story is just there?  Think about what's going on and why?  Maybe it will lead to a greater understanding of your writing.  And I also think you should exploit this ability you have with taking pieces of overheard conversations or just a snippet of a spoken sentence and then sitting down and getting the story down.

As you can see, she asked some great questions that I've been thinking about lately.  The thing is, I don't know why it happens the way it does. I really have no idea why my ear latches on to certain things and not others. For example, just last week, as I walked past an elderly woman who was chatting with one of the guards at the hospital, I heard her say "...and then the Holy Spirit spoke to me."  And I kept on walking. I thought it was a bit curious and slightly amusing and I thought "I'd love to hear the rest of that conversation," but I didn't push past people waiting for the elevator to get to my office to write down my next short story.

Nancy suggested that I work on a collection of stories that originated as overheard conversations.  It's appealing, for sure.  It would give me a goal, a framework, a method of organization (and I could certainly use more of all three in my life). But I worry--will I start to overreach? How will I know which conversations to use?

The key, I think, is instinct. I think that might be what's going on when I pick out those meaningful conversations. Let's face it: Nearly every decision I make in life (be it choices in my writing, or choices for dinner) comes down to a visceral reaction. Maybe, after so many years of letting my gut make all the decisions, it's finally started to develop a discerning palate.  (And, quite frankly, it's about time, right? I've fed you well, gut. Now you're working for me.) I think that has to be it. Specific to the idea of overhearing conversations, like anyone, I overhear tons of conversations in any given day. Many, like the little old lady with a dedicated line to Jesus, are merely interesting/amusing/unnerving.  Something in here has to be picking through all the detritus and making the decision, right? And broadly speaking, that's what instinct is, right? That mechanism, that thing, that whatchamacallit that filters out all the crap and focuses on what's important.

I'm hoping that's what it is. Because if my instinct is guiding me through all the unusable stuff to get me to the stuff that works, then that means that I have learned something, that I've grown, right?

I think that's it for tonight. I should get a good night's sleep. I have a full day of eavesdropping ahead of me tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Every writing instructor eventually suggests you write in a coffee shop. Yes, they’re great places to hear conversations and get ideas, but in my late 20’s, I started to notice an inordinate number of my stories revolved around – yep, coffee shops. I stopped indulging the habit. But the snippet of overheard conversation I’ve carried from those days was from a young guy in a coffee shop talking on his cell phone. It was a September afternoon, and he sat by a door open to the street watching commuters trudge up and down the steps to the El. He was chattering along when a young woman in a yellow dress started climbing the stairs. In mid-sentence, he stood, told whoever was on the other end of the line, “Wait, I’m in love. Gotta go,” and bolted out the door for the El.

    For 11 years, I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate this into a story. It’ll happen – someday.