Monday, March 2, 2009

Creative Writers Gather Data

For the short-story-writing class today, I had students gather data over the weekend. The task was to visit a public venue, listen to people, and write down phrases, statements, and questions heard. I think we were aiming for a list of 20 separate items.
However, the idea was not to "eavesdrop," in the classic sense. Part of the plan was not to listen to whole conversation but to seize isolated utterances. We also stressed paying attention to exactly how people phrase things.

I've used the exercise a few times, both for poetry and fiction classes, but this time it proved especially rich. Numerous puzzling, shocking, hilarious, cryptic, uncanny, oddly phrased, and mysterious phrases, statements, and questions were captured.

What to do with the "data"? One implicit "lesson," I think, is to remind oneself of just how powerful speech--or, in short-fiction terms, "dialogue"--is: how complicated, full of conflict, and volatile it is. More specifically, one approach is to take what someone says literally. One example I can think of is that a person heard another person say, "I didn't know people needed blood." Of course, we can fill in around the statement to make it seem a reasonable thing to say, but for creative-writing purposes, we may want to assume it's just a stark statement of fact. Then the question to ask is under what circumstances would an adult say such a thing "for real" ? The fictional "answer" is the seed of the story.

In the airport this weekend, I tried to "do" the task myself, and I overheard a teenaged girl/woman say to another girl/woman of the same age, "She takes a lot of drugs, and vice versa." What a great thing to say! The phrasing is unwittingly funny--and wise. In what dialogue from what story might this statement work? That's the question, or one question. A student in class also observed how "vice" took on additional meaning in this case.

As one might expect, the person who wrote down a given statement, question, or phrase--because s/he knew the context or had been tempted to fill in the context--was often less able to see the creative possiblilities than those who had just heard the statement for the first time. So I guess another more or less obvious "lesson" is to try to be able to see and hear the recorded language freshly--almost naively, but not quite.

May your listening/observing be most creatively productive.
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