“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more.
Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop.
Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
Walker Evans

The first time I read this quote in the opening pages of Bret Lott’s Before We Get Started I never forgot it.

The quote reminds me to be aware always and that writing is pulled from the observation of reality. It’s also a bit of a free pass to eavesdrop in the name of art, but I think it’a necessary.

As a young writer some of the most important advice I’ve been given is to observe the world around me. Listen to the dialogue between a mother and daughter, between a husband and wife. Write it down and practice your own dialogue in your short stories straight from the source. Watch how people interact with one another in real life because chances are when you go to write it down you begin to forget how people actually talk to each other.

I once eavesdropped on multiple people while walking through the Mark Rothko exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. I admit, I did it because I really wanted understand why people were so taken with his work. I wanted to be apart of the community of people in awe of his paintings. Through multiple overheard conversations I learned something–that appreciating art didn’t come naturally for me, but what these people had to say intrigued me enough to try.

I didn’t go home to write a story about it, but it gave me a peek at the inside of normal everyday person’s mind and how they think about something like the paintings of Mark Rothko.

Then there’s the time I was at a cafe reading the poetry of Adam Zagajewski when a couple sat down at a table next to me with a baby’s car seat. When they first started arguing it was back ground noise, but little by little I got more distracted by their speech, (“if you wouldn’t have done it!” / “I’m always the bad guy!”) Soon I couldn’t concentrate on what I was reading and was kind of incredulous at how loud the couple was being. That’s when I remembered the quote. I grabbed the only thing I had, a pencil and a napkin, and wrote down as much of their conversation that I could before they left.

As of right now, I have no clue where that napkin is, but I remember everything that was on it. I didn’t eavesdrop and listen to their fight to be a jerk, I did it so I would know how to write a couple fighting in a story. So I could make my fictional world and characters believable.

That’s the job of the writer.