In the creative writing courses that I teach, I encourage my students to develop two skills in particular so they can be impeccable at their craft:

Read. A lot. You can, of course, be a writer without reading, but because reading is the very foundation of writing and presumably the reason that first drew you to writing in the first place, read what came before you and also what contemporary authors are writing, so you know what and how to do differently. For example, in addition to reading the books I teach in my classes, I have a
personal goal to read about 50 books every year. This is a modest goal. I have friends who read twice or even thrice that number. They don’t have any extra hours in a day than you and I. They make time for what they prioritise, which in their case is reading, by cutting down the minutes spent at the altar of Netflix.

Eavesdrop. To be a good writer, especially of creative nonfiction, which is the genre I mostly teach, one needs to acquire a fair degree of shamelessness. Why? Because you will be writing about yourself. And eavesdropping on non-suspecting people’s conversations might convince you that, contrary to what you think, you mostly have your stuff together. Plus, it will inspire you to dig into your memories and experiences.

Natural for Indians

Now, we Indians are nosy people. We revel in gossip. We don’t see it as a sin, most definitely not as a crime. We are not very good about sharing all that really ails us – for example, depression or the toxic effects of verbal abuse within our families. But irrespective of age, gender, social class, economic strength, attitudes towards the Cow, Cricket, or the Chin Chin Chu song starring Sonakshi Sinha, if there is one thing that unites us all, it is gossip.

And not just the celebrity edition, where a headline might scream, “Priyanka Chopra Winks at Nick Jonas’s Tau”(she has not done this, people, calm down) but the everyday, the humdrum. How much did Jatin’s cousin Mukul score in his tenth board exams? What did Babbloo Mama say to Majhli Bua at Rontu’s wedding? That kind. In our part of the world, in both my personal and professional experience, the act of eavesdropping is not hard to sell.

But in the US, where I have now lived and taught for twelve years, and where most of my students have been raised with the instruction to leave others alone, it is a harder sell. I suspect some of it is religiously-inspired given that there are Biblical passages that condemn gossip. For example, Proverbs 20:19 – “a gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much.”

Even if you ignore the hold of religion, telling young writers to immerse themselves in others’ conversations seems contrary to what writers have traditionally done, which is to listen to themselves and their subconscious, and block out outside noise and distractions. And yet, here I am telling them to do the exact opposite, and ignore the wise words of their 23rd First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who pronounced, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”.

How it began

My foray into the seductive realm of eavesdropping began when I was myself a student of creative writing. After reading one of my stories, my professor observed that my dialogue was weak. To this day, I am not entirely convinced I agree. There are differences between Indian English and American English. But anyway, that day I didn’t argue. I simply asked what I should do to improve.

“Eavesdrop,” she said, “Listen to how real people talk.”

And that’s how it began.

Since that day more than ten years ago, I have honed my eavesdropping skills to perfection. I eavesdrop on planes, inside cafes and restaurants, standing in lines, at doctors’ offices, when I shop for groceries. I avidly listen to strangers confessing, gloating, complaining, arguing, and sharing. I pay attention to the rise and dip of their voices, mannerisms, pauses, and accents. (If in the US alone, there can be so many accents from Valley Girl to Southern, imagine the potential given our 2,000 plus languages and dialects.)

I have heard two-year-olds try to negotiate motorbikes out of their parents. I have heard senior citizens lament about how their children and grandchildren never wish them on their birthdays and anniversaries though they have countless calendars on their devices. I have heard young women coax each other to stay on in abusive relationships because the alternative, being single, has seemed to them far worse than anything else. There are numerous others that I have noted and filed away, just so I can use them later.

But more than anything else, I think I enjoy eavesdropping because of my primal and fundamental need for stories. My childhood was marked by the absence of 24x7 television and the internet, and listening to stories from parents and grandparents was very much a means to understand the world, expand my imagination, and gain valuable social skills.

My grandparents in particular were skilled storytellers. With their prodigious memories, they could recite entire poems they had memorised in their own childhood even if they had not revisited them since. Most of us, myself included, don’t do that anymore. We prefer zoning out from our surroundings and disappearing into our phones in search of heart-shaped validations of Instagram.

But say you want to get started and become a professional eavesdropper. Where do you begin? How do you train yourself?

A five-step programme

  • Words: You know how you can pick your mother’s voice in a roomful of people? That’s really what you are after. Each of us have peculiar and characteristic words and phrases that we use again and again. Make a note of the specific words each speaker is using.
  • Body language: Pay attention to the speakers’ eyes, hands, and feet. Are they constantly reaching for their phone? Are their knees bobbing? Are they chewing on the inside of their mouth?
  • Edit: Once you are home, rewrite the dialogue. Edit it for clarity. In real life, we are often vague and take too long to come to the point. That should not be the case in your writing.
  • Reread your favourite books: See what your favourite authors have done with dialogue. For example, I love the way Aravinda Adiga and Shirley Jackson’s characters speak on the page. They are always memorable and unique. 
  • Observe: But don’t be obvious. Keep in mind Lemony Snicket’s sage words, “The key to good eavesdropping is not getting caught.”  

When I first tell my students that they have to start eavesdropping, the blatant disregard for other people’s privacy is deeply bothersome for many of them. Still, they go along with it, either because they are intrigued, or because that’s what I have required them to do. Mostly, my goal with the exercise is to teach them that our best stories are not just the products of our own minds, that they can come to us from anywhere and everywhere. We only have to raise our eyes from our numerous screens and pay attention.

But there is one more benefit of eavesdropping that I should be telling my students. That it can be a fix for loneliness. That it can do what stories have always done – reaffirm what we already know about ourselves; that despite our newer, much improved multipurpose, multi-pronged gadgets, we are all hungry for validation.

Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between and The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. She teaches creative writing and edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review.