What you learn by listening

9 Dec

Last week, while walking down a hallway in the high school where I teach, I heard the following snippet of conversation:

“He was like, smiley face.  And I was like, question mark?”

I found myself smiling immediately with delight at the absurdity of the words I’d heard.   I whipped out my trusty Moleskine pocket notebook to commit the words to paper, as I’m notoriously dependent on paper and pencil to assist my remembering.

What I realized I had heard there was so much more than a verbal attempt to render a text message conversation.  There is the briefly protruded tip of a worldview in that conversation, a world in which a galaxy of mutual understandings is revealed as much by what is not said, but what is understood implicitly by those conversing, and in no need of explanation.

This impulse on my part, to eavesdrop and record, is the literary artist’s equivalent of sketching: quick line drawings done in the field by painters and other visual artists as a similar aid to memory.  It’s so second nature to me now that I hardly notice it, but it was something I taught myself to do.  In my early twenties, as I travelled around a bit and lived in various cities in Canada and around the world, I’d go into public places: foyers, coffee shops, bus stations, and do little else for hours but transcribe the conversations around me.  I did this mostly to get a sense of what real dialogue felt like, to learn to put words that come from the mouths of real people at my literal fingertips.

I guess I probably did pick up that skill, but what I really learned to appreciate in the midst of these jottings was the way larger life reveals itself in microcosms.  As a broken shard of mirror can be made to reflect a whole image: careful examination of small details can be far more valuable than sweeping vistas and overly ambitious panoramic generalization.

What you can learn from observation is also a nice counterbalance to the introverted solitary time needed to put words together into imaginary worlds.  No amount of silent reflection could reveal such a great sentence as, “I was like, question mark?”  Some knowledge can only be garnered in the world.

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