Monday, March 7, 2016


When you read of new studies suggesting how so many of our traits and attitudes are on their way toward being formed at age seven, you are quite often taken back in memory to the times when you first became of the word and then the activity of eavesdropping.

You were about seven at the time, or so it seems now. Perhaps eight or nine, but certainly no more than ten. The word has a mysterious majesty to it, at once forbidden and intriguing. 

You know you had a dictionary of your own by then; you can recall going to your room to look up the meaning. You can also recall when you first heard the word used, two women talking, one of them saying to the other, "He was eavesdropping on me," and the other saying, "No, really?  He didn't. He wouldn't."

Not until you looked up the word and its meaning were you aware you'd first heard the word while you were performing the act of which the word speaks. Listening to the conversations of others in secret, without their consent. The dictionary you had also used the word covert, which was another word you admired. Seeing the words defined in a dictionary gave them and the activity an added cachet of a widespread behavior, an adult behavior.

At the same time, you were interested in codes, in no small measure because the radio dramas you listened to featured code-related things, flinging the door wide open to a world of secret messages, of privileged conversations, of hidden meanings. You had an Orphan Annie decoder badge, a Lone Ranger code badge, and books explaining ways in which spies--another splendid word and concept--communicated.

The code devices from your radio serial dramas were quite effective; unless you had the key to the code, the message was a series of letters or numbers, preserving secrecy. And when you learned that invisible ink could be made from the juice of a lemon, you were ecstatic.But what secrets would a boy of your age have, what need for decoder rings with secret departments for hidden coded messages?

Secrets was clearly an adult thing. Eavesdropping was, of equal clarity, a way to learn the mysteries of adulthood. You were already beginning to suspect that many of these mysteries were related to sex, which was something you'd begun to look up during your visits to libraries.  

Perhaps now, with your awareness of eavesdropping as a reality, you could discover material worth writing in your notebooks. If the material were sensitive--yet another intriguing word--you could encode it, or write it in invisible ink, which you knew how to make visible.

Books discussing the behavior and activities of spying led you to believe that, like the ink, you needed to find ways to remain inconspicuous, if not invisible. Based on your experiences of attempting to be served at the neighborhood delicatessens your mother often sent you to for such things as rye bread, knackwurst, pickled tomatoes, and deli mustard, you knew that adults tended not to notice boys such as you. 

But once you made up your mind to eavesdrop, and were developing competence in it, you came to a conclusion that probably had a measure of influence in your deciding to become a storyteller. Most of the conversations on which you'd eavesdropped were nothing of note, certainly nothing worth noting in your notebooks, positively nothing worth rendering into code.

Sometimes, as you write dialogue or talk about it to clients and students, you imagine the you who were so excited about the concept of eavesdropping, excited even more at the awareness that you'd begun to do it before you even knew what it was. You ask yourself, would you have been excited by this dialogue? You've understood the difference between dialogue and conversation for some time. The artistry you hope for comes with the effect on the reader. Does it sound conversational? Ah, too bad. On the other hand, if it sounds like dialogue, you might be on to something.

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