Friday Writing Experiment No. 22: Voice 1: Listening


Following up on some of the things I discussed at last Saturday’s workshop, I thought I’d devote the next four weeks to writing exercises that work in different ways with the idea of VOICE in writing. In particular, I’m keen to consider how we can use the natural speaking voice as a foundation for our writing.

Overheard dialogue
To start us off, this week let’s do some overheard dialogue exercises. The oldest and most trusty exercises are so often the best. So take yourself to a public place where you can listen to and record what people say to each other.

Where to record? Coffee shops are good. When I was at Naropa, we were told that hanging out in the psych department guaranteed some good gleanings (the freedom – and colour – of expression of Buddhist psychologists is probably rarely surpassed). Or you could try bookshop cafes, college refectories, or workplace cafeterias – places where you can not only hear people having interesting, banal, surprising, or strange conversations, but places where you can record what you hear without being obvious. You can pretend you’re tapping away at the keyboard typing up that report, when in fact you are copying down as fast as you can the account of someone else’s disastrous date last night.

How much to record? As much as you can, right now, including every um and er. It’s all raw material, for you to look at later. (Editing real dialogue can be a great supplementary exercise in listening as well as in shaping words.)

And how to record? My friend and teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins used to tell us to buy those small audio recorders and actually to record what you hear on the sly, then type it up (her tip was to plug in earphones to pretend you were listening to a recording, rather than making one). A few years later, of course, we have mobile phones that work for that purpose. But there are disadvantages. You do get background noise. And in certain jurisdictions audio recording of people who’re unaware of it might be illegal, and at the very least probably unethical. Hmmmm. But hey, that’s something for us to sort out later – if you are not using it in any way, this is just good practice. And writers borrow from the world around them ALL the time. Alan Bennett has said he’s got a lot of his good stuff eavesdropping on buses.

I have tended to find audio recording a bit too cumbersome and/or I’m a bit too cowardly, or too clumsy to use technology. So I’ve preferred writing in a notebook very quickly in a shorthand of sorts. For this reason (and others), it’s good to carry notebooks at all times. Bobbie told us to buy a bunch of cheap little notebooks, and have one in your coat, one in your bag, one by the phone, one on your beside table, etc., for those moments when things strike you, or you overhear gold.

But you could write at a keyboard too. You can probably type faster at a laptop than you can handwrite. Or you could always pretend you are sending an email on your phone or iPad, when in fact you’re tapping out that juicy conversation between that couple in the seats in front of you on the train.

What to do with this writing? Using your findings is a separate process: some overheard gems might provide content, sparking some brilliant idea for a story, or a new direction for something you’re having trouble with. Other things could provide stretches of dialogue you can shape or adapt for your work. Some snatches of dialogue can be lifted verbatim into your own dialogue.

But let’s not just be utilitarian. This week I’m mostly interested in how you LISTEN.

Listen for the shapes of the sentences. Listen for the rhythms of sentences. Note the halts and repetitions (some or most of which we’ll probably prune in later drafts of writing). Note the use of questions or other rhetorical flourishes. Observe patterns in syntax, e.g., the position and choice of the grammatical subject in a sentence, the active vs the passive voice. Also note the use of parts of speech: verbs and nouns in particular, and where and when adjectives and adverbs are deployed (not so often, you’ll note). Speech is economical: little description, little fat. Speakers can assume that whoever they are talking to will get the gist of what they are saying without too much back story or explanation (something to note in our writing – too many manuscripts labour detailed and mechanical explanations). Note how people telling stories often have a particular way of speaking that’s easy and direct.

In particular, work out where the ENERGY lies in the voices you hear. Maybe even write notes to yourself identifying some of these features in the writing.

Later on, if you’ve been recording this, you can type it up. Think about where you might pepper the sentences you hear with punctuation such as exclamation marks, dashes – e.g., for interruptions – or ellipses … e.g., for pauses and gaps … Consider where you might add semi-colons or commas. You might also want to start spacing out the dialogue with dialogue tags and/or physical description (though that’s another exercise).

When I took a workshop on monologue with Bobbie, we’d start every class by sharing our overheard dialogue from the week before. We’d whip out our notebooks and read our gems aloud for half an hour or maybe more. It’s a lot of fun. People are fun, and funny, and tragic sometimes. And overheard dialogue taps right into that.

Do as much overheard dialogue as you can this week. Even when you are not actively recording, or unable to record (eating in a restaurant, standing on a crowded tube train, waiting for the lift at work, shopping, watching a rugby game), keep your ear out. LISTEN. Absorb the patterns made by the human voice. Slow down and listen. Grow that instinct for the sound of words, and how words can be used and put on a page.

Listening is one of the greatest skills a writer has. Learn to listen to the world around you. Learn to listen to yourself.

Further resources
Overheard dialogue from Script Gods Must Die
Overheard in New York
Tube Gossip: Overheard on the London Underground (Oh, how I love the language of city life – the guttural, expletive Anglo-Saxon joy of a person uttering, ‘Twat!’ at someone barging past. Beauty in the ugly.)

Some overheard dialogue I’ve recorded
* ‘Would you mind if I sit with you for dinner again tonight?’ ‘Erm, no – I have my Goethe, and I think I want to sit and read that tonight.’ (In the restaurant of a pensione in Venice.)
* ‘He knew all of the crowned heads of Europe. He married one of the Barton-Johnsons. I knew Jenny way back. Almost the first girlfriend I ever had. He can be a bit chippy … He’s a very good man … I don’t think the magnums will go very far. He’s a very witty man. Beautiful manners. It’s very easy for people like him to become pompous and patronising.’ (On a train to Waterloo.)
* ‘Let’s get into one that’s not being rained on’ (Tourists at Windsor station.)
* ‘I don’t want to spend my Saturday mornings sitting in a church hall listening to other people’s problems. They’re all so stupid. They were asked to sit there and come up with two things they could do to improve their marriages, and they did. One couple said it was really helpful. They’d never talked about these things before. Like, how stupid can they be? What sort of people are they?’ (At Wahaca’s burrito booth on the SouthBank.)