Among the timeless tips that writers have handed down over the centuries, such as “Write what you know” – the value of which I blogged about earlier this week – has always been to take any and every opportunity to eavesdrop. Snippets of conversations among strangers have always provided fiction writers with an endlessly rich source of ideas. Why did she say that? What did she mean? Were his feelings hurt? Has she ever said that before? Imagining the meaning behind what was said gives writers new ideas for plot; contemplating the vaguer implications of just how it was said leads to nuanced characters with complex personalities.
And this is one area in which cell phone use has made life for writers far more interesting than it used to be. Now we can overhear not just conversations between two people who are talking in person but countless snippets from passers-by talking into their phones – often loudly and unguardedly. Annoying cell phone conversations may be pet peeves for other citizens, but for writers, they are a gold mine. At least that’s what I try to tell myself every time I start to feel irritated by the noise pollution of people all around me having one-sided conversations.
Last month I was walking through downtown Aspen on a warm, beautiful summer evening. Everywhere were visitors and locals alike basking in the beauty of the sun setting over the mountains. A quartet from the Aspen Music School had set up chairs and music stands and were playing classical melodies. Small children in bathing suits were darting through the street fountain. Never had the town looked so enticing to me.
Just then a teenage girl wandered into my field of vision. “I am so bored!!!” she screamed into her phone. “I’m in Aspen and I have nothing to do!”
Well, I thought, that’s another perspective. I always feel like there’s more to do in Aspen than anywhere else I’ve ever been. You can shop, attend lectures on a variety of topics, hike, bike, fish, raft, dine, stroll. But this young woman’s perspective was different from mine. She apparently would rather be anywhere else. Were I trying to come up with a fictional scenario at the moment, beginning with an imagined character sketch of her would be a great starting point. Or I could begin by imagining her circumstances, which might lead to a concept for plot: how had she landed here so unwillingly, what was everyone with whom she was traveling doing, and what would she herself rather be doing and where?
So these days, instead of finding it annoying when people talk on their phones on train cars or shops, I try to appreciate the narrative potential of the situation. Everyone has a story, and listening to phone calls gives us an inkling of what that story might be. From that point, we’re free to imagine the rest as accurately or absurdly as we wish. It’s a gift to writers, really: one that I am trying hard to remember to accept graciously.