On Street Talk: Listening as a Prelude to Writing

On Street Talk: Listening as a Prelude to Writing

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Several decades ago, for a brief time, I socialized with a crowd that included Sam Shepard—the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, author, screenwriter, and actor—who played on the same polo team as my then husband. Occasionally, as I recall, Shepard would sit out a match, sharing the bleachers alongside the team’s family and friends.

I was always a little shy around Shepard, overcome by awe. Not so much because he was famous, but because he was a writer, something at the time I was working hard at becoming myself. But as I secretly observed him under the guise of watching the game, I saw that Shepard, too, was also shy. Quiet spoken, he never said much. Intent on the galloping horses and swinging polo sticks, he kept his gaze straight ahead, on the game before him. But as I watched Shepard, I began to notice something else: he was actively listening. As conversations eddied around him, I could almost see his ears prick up, like the horses he loved so much. The slight turn of his head, the narrowing of his eyes, indicated (to me) that he was mentally taking in turns of phrases, voice intonations and emotional undercurrents that might one day, I conjectured, become woven into his plays or movie scripts.

I can never really know for sure whether Shepard was listening as I imagined he was. But in a 2014 Guardian review of a London theater production of his play, True West, he had this to say: “You know, writing for the theatre is so different to writing for anything else. Because what you write is eventually going to be spoken. That’s why I think so many really powerful novelists can’t write a play—because they don’t understand that it’s spoken, that it hits the air. They don’t get that. . . .But of course I have the opposite problem. . . .I can hear language, I can hear it spoken out loud. But when it comes into the head I have a much harder time.”

Two years ago, after a move to a more urban neighborhood than anywhere I’d lived before, this memory came flooding back. For most of my adult life, I’d been accustomed to taking my daily walks through quiet, tree-lined suburban streets. Encounters with fellow walkers were sparse and brief; we’d each nod, and then walk along our way. Now, as I traipsed along King Street, the bustling thoroughfare lined with brick sidewalks and cafés and shops in Old Town, Alexandria where I’d just moved, I found myself surrounded by a babble of voices in nearly every language: Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portugese, Arabic, and once, even a bit of Gaelic.

Most of the snatches of conversations I overheard, however, were in English (though some were a mix of English with a native language). Curious, I began to tune in to this continuous stream of dialogue, listening as I’d once imagined Shepard listening in to the conversations sitting on the bleachers at those polo games years ago. I’d always carried a small notebook on my walks to jot down any inspiration that might arise relevant to whatever I was writing; now I began dashing into doorways to record these bits and pieces of “street talk.”

“It’s the kind of country where you could get killed, so, you know, I had to be quiet,” confided a young woman walking behind me to her male companion. “But I still tried to speak the truth when I could.” (It should be noted that this is the kind of dialogue one might only overhear on the streets of a Washington, D.C. suburb).

“My mom called me again—I don’t believe it! She’s so . . . . so I’m giving Mom a little spin!”

“When you were born, the doctor threw the umbilical cord out the window.”

“I’m mostly liberal, but I have to hand it to you guys . . . .” (pre-2016-presidential election).

“He told her he was leaving, and then she said . . . .”

“I just want to be old enough not to get arrested!” (Said a young black teen to several of his friends gathered on a street corner)

“First I start in the living room, I dust, and then I do the entryway, because it’s the first place people see when they walk in . . . .”

“If I could walk on water, I would, but I can only fly!” (really?)

“I felt like a million dollars, but then she . . . .” (what?)

“There’s just me and my books, so there’s only so much going out I can do.” (Spoken by a young woman after my heart).

“It would be great if they had a consignment store for clothes that were out of style, for those who don’t like to follow the trends.”

“Seattle is more isolated, but it’s the key to the algorithms.”

“Europeans are trilingual and bilingual; it’s part of the curriculum, not like here.”

“. . . .and the liberals are suddenly all so constitutional!”

“I never remember how to say goodbye in Gaelic, only ‘hello,’ and ‘how are you.’ ”

“I made her sign a paper that said ‘I owe you zero.’ ”

“She’s so old that when she sends me an email she puts the whole message in the subject line!”

“Three coins in the fountain, which one will the fountain bless. . . .” (sung on the street by one young woman to another).

Overhearing these snatches of street talk stokes my writer’s imagination, and keeps me immersed in a kind of perpetually flowing river of language, imagination, and story. Listening in to the world as it eddies around me in conversational waves also takes me beyond newspapers and talk shows, connecting me to the immediacy of the human condition in this political moment. Just the other day, I walked past a young black couple seated at an outdoor café, intensely engaged in conversation. Suddenly the man half rose out of his chair, leaned forward, and exclaimed loudly “I’m going to start carrying a body camera!!” The woman he was with, however, seemed less certain: “But. . . . .” she said, shaking her head and looking solemn, just as I walked out of earshot.

Street-talk-listening also sensitizes my inner ear to the cadence of dialogue, the verbal give and take between two or more people. This kind of spoken exchange was central to both my books: in editing my recorded conversations with psychologists for America on the Couch, for example, as well as for my memoir about my father, American Icarus. Reaching far back in time and recovering long-buried memories of my father speaking —certain things he said, the charged scenes during which he said them, and the bodily force with which his words were delivered—was often the medium through which he resurrected back to life. Like many men of that Greatest Generation, Joe was direct, sparse, colorful, hurtful, rarely subtle, yet always, in the manner of a cranky Zen monk or an old-time cowboy, bone truthful. “Just drive me out of town and shoot me with a gun,” he blurted over the phone one day after being told by his doctor that he was dying—knocking my heart right out of me.

That a book or a piece of writing should sound as good as it reads is well known to most editors. Before turning in the first draft of American Icarus to my esteemed editor and publisher, Martin Rowe of Lantern Books, in fact, he advised me to read the entire 600 page manuscript out loud. And upon reading this family memoir for the first time, my brother John Carroll, also an editor and journalist, offered high praise by saying that it “passed the read-aloud test.”

Now, as I begin the long process of writing a memoir about my mother’s life and her unusual immigration and ancestral story, I feel greatly blessed to have her still with me. Not just to be able to listen to and record her memories and observations as they spontaneously arise during our visits (many in connection to the photos, keepsakes, and books that surround her), but to also chart the tonal landscape of her voice, the odd turns of phrases, the shifts between English and Spanish, and the way her body changes with each language. Just the other day, in fact, as she was saying. . . . .