Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ardent Eavesdropping

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Ardent Eavesdropping

When I first started jotting down notes for this post, I was on a plane to Calgary and couldn’t figure out how to turn off the seatback TV that was blaring in my face (to my relief, I learned eventually to dim the brightness all the way). I switched around trying to find the least distracting channel, and settled on a tennis match. I don’t know anything about tennis, so I had zero interest in the onscreen action. And all that back-and-forth running and swatting turned out to be a fitting backdrop for a post about other people’s conversations.

I get a kick out of the volleys and parries and jabs in discreetly overheard dialogue. (I don’t play any sports, but sports metaphors are fun!) And I don’t discriminate. Arguments, gossip, anecdotes, jokes, questions, comments, between two or more people, or in a one-sided cellphone chat—I love and collect them all:

Middle-aged businesswoman on her cellphone: “I have an improvement session booked for Friday. And then Chantal told me she’s not coming. And I’m like, ‘Well, sorry, it’s mandatory.’ So now I have to go and talk to Jamie and say Chantal doesn’t want to attend a mandatory session.”

College guy to a bunch of other college guys: “Man, she’s from north of Barrie. The odds are, like, 80 percent she’ll have a kid by the time she’s 22. I am seriously not kidding. No offense to her, I don’t even know her. But all my groups of guys, like there’s 20 of us, and there’s just two of us who haven’t knocked up a girl. And all those girls are from there. I can’t stress this fact enough. Do not trust her in that situation. Even if you think you can, you can’t.”

Bearded sculptor at an outdoor art festival, to a potential customer: “You know you’re in the zone when you forget yourself completely. Then you know what’s going to come out the other end is going to be hot, whatever it is.”

Even the dullest exchanges will shimmer for me. And I like the sneakiness too—They don’t know it, but I’m writing down what they’re saying!

Soon after moving to Toronto in 1998, I worked as a receptionist in a horrible company for a few months. I hated the job, but I loved that so many of my co-workers treated me like furniture. They would say all sorts of things in front of me, as if I wasn’t there. And I would just sit at my desk in front of my computer, and transcribe their conversations verbatim.

Eavesdropping has also made me a better writer.

I used to listen more for what was being said. On the GO Train once, I giddily strained my ears as two tough-sounding teenage girls in the seats behind me did a play-by-play of a street-racing accident they’d been in the night before. It was gold, and I was cursing my hand for cramping up as I scrambled to capture everything they said—all the while terrified that they would notice what I was doing and beat me up.

Afterwards, I changed the names and embellished a few details, and the result was a story called “Those Girls,” which was eventually published in 2006 by Greenboathouse Books in a chapbook with the same title. But first, I turned this found dialogue treasure into a mini-zine, complete with Taco Bell wrapper decoration! You can read it here.

Now I listen less for the content than for how things are said. Try this the next time you’re eavesdropping—and I’d suggest wearing dark sunglasses to avoid looking like a weirdo: Close your eyes, and ignore the what in favour of the how—concentrate on the breaks and pauses, the “um’s” and “uh’s” and “like’s” and “you know’s”. Most of us don’t use flowery prose, or even speak in complete sentences a lot of the time. Our phrases are choppy. We hem and haw as we mentally search for the right word.

Practising this type of listening will help to hone your sense of rhythm and pacing in your written dialogue. You can even eavesdrop on yourself! Be your own audience and observe your own speech patterns. This can be just as beneficial—though maybe not as clandestine—as listening to other people.

I’ve also found that it’s not always what they say or how they say it, but what they don’t say—that unspoken, between-the-lines material that you can sense just sitting there. Of course, unless you can read minds, this is the stuff you have to make up. Think of it as filling in the blanks—like your own personal game of Mad Libs.

Finally, to avoid detection, it’s a good idea to maintain a poker face at all times. Do not broadcast your eavesdropping joy, as the consequences of discovery could be dire. When I’m under the thrall of a great conversation, I often imagine a nightmare scenario in which the person or people I’m listening to realizes what I’m doing. First, they stop talking. Then they frown at me with my open notebook and guiltily poised pen. In slow motion, they lean over, cross their arms, and start reading. Their eyes widen as they silently mouth the exact words they were speaking a moment ago. They shake their head in confusion and outrage, and say, “Whaaaat?”

Whew. That’s as far as I’ve got.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead's short stories have appeared in major literary journals in Canada and the United States. "Unique and Life-Changing Items," which appears in And Also Sharks, was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. Her first novel, Pulpy & Midge, was nominated for the ReLit Award. Westhead lives in Toronto.

Go to Jessica Westhead’s Author Page