I have a confession to make today. Listening in on other people’s conversations is one of my favourite things to do, and I don’t think any artistic person should feel the least bit guilty about it.
In fact, we should be doing it regularly.
Why is that, you might be wondering? I have several different reasons for feeling this way.
This Isn’t About Spreading or Listening to Gossip. I would be equally interested in overhearing people passionately debate their favourite fishing techniques as I would a happy story about someone they know who just got engaged. If someone really loves a certain topic, their enthusiasm for it can be contagious.
There’s also something fascinating about conversations that aren’t rehearsed or expected to be remembered in any way. I like the little pauses people add to what they say before they share big news and the different sounds they make when they hear something sad, thrilling, troubling, or wonderful.
The way that words slip off of a real person’s tongue isn’t always the same as the way that characters speak. It’s interesting to find these small cracks between the two and try to fill them in the next time I read or write something that didn’t quite hit the mark.
Your Intentions Are Good. On a related note, another big reason why I don’t have a problem with eavesdropping for creative purposes is because artists and writers generally have good intentions when they do it. We listen in on other people’s conversations to find inspiration, not stir up trouble or poke our noses into other people’s business.
There have been times when I suddenly stopped eavesdropping on people because of how personal or sensitive their exchange was becoming. It’s one thing to overhear someone talk about what kind of fruit to pick up at the grocery store and quite another to listen to them plan a funeral or publicly break up with their partner.
These aren’t things that I have any interest in overhearing. They really should have happened in a private place anyway, so I pretend like I never heard them if they accidentally spill out into the public sphere. Someone who was eavesdropping for an unsavoury purpose wouldn’t have this kind of discretion.
Some Moments Were Made for Each Other. Have you ever thought of the perfect comeback minutes, hours, or days after a discussion ended? Time travel isn’t possible, of course, but you can always go back and rewrite how things should or could have gone if that’s something you want to.
There’s also something to be said for snipping moments out of real life that never could have happened next to each other and then figuring out how to lay them down gently on a fresh sheet of paper, tuck them into song lyrics, or flick them onto a clean canvas. The best things I’ve ever written were a curious mixture of wishful thinking, stolen tidbits of time from true events, and characters I’ve already created that demand to keep that particular idea for their own uses.
Other People’s Stories Are Fodder for the Imagination. I have never used an entire conversation that I’ve heard in anything that I’ve written. The details always get changed, and they usually are altered in such profound ways that no no one would recognize their source.
Most of the time these exchanges make me think of questions that lead me to entirely new places in my mind. For example, I might hear someone mispronounce a fairly common word and wonder why they did that. Is English their second language? Did they used to have a severe stutter when they were a child that now only comes through when they try to say certain sounds? Have they only ever read that word in print and so have no idea that they’re mispronouncing it?
There are so many logical explanations for something like this. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, there could be plenty of supernatural or otherworldly explanations to play around with as well. Has this person been possessed by a ghost who lived in a time when that word was pronounced differently? Is she an alien who is desperately trying to blend into human society while she observes how our society functions and decides whether or not to officially make first contact?
I almost never have a clue if my theories are actually correct, but that doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. They provide a decent jumping off point, and I’m happy to let my imagination wander after that.
Life Would be Dull Without Storytellers. I believe that poets, musicians, writers, painters, and other creative folks fulfill a vital purpose for our species. We take note of those strange, beautiful, difficult, or thought-provoking moments in life that many other people miss and reinterpret them in all kinds of wonderful ways.
Occasionally we even get to preserve those moments so that they can be savoured decades or even centuries after they originally existed. If this isn’t a kind of immortality, I don’t know what else would qualify. There is something almost magical about still having these snapshots of ordinary times that existed long ago and in faraway places.
So eavesdrop away, fellow creative people! There are beautiful moments slipping by every single day. It’s up to us to capture a few of them and make sure they’re not forgotten.