On Overheard Conversation and “Afternoon Affair”

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sally Ashton discusses the classroom prompt that led her to write her recent Brevity essay “Afternoon Affair:”

This lyric essay comes out of an assignment I give my Introduction to Creative Writing students at San Jose State University. I ask them to listen for and write down interesting lines of dialog overheard in different settings: the cafeteria, the library, sitting on a bench. Not the whole conversation, just some intriguing snippet.

Their collected lines become fuel for a story or perhaps a poem, whether for themselves or another student when shared in class. The exercise also gives them practice in paying attention to the world around them.

As often happens, the assignment turned back on me.

The incident that became “Afternoon Affair” occurred later the day of the assignment when I was on my way home from campus. What seemed at first to be an opportunity to capture an interesting line of dialog to use in the next class meeting became instead an unforgettable personal encounter.

Would the encounter have occurred had I not been attentive, as I had encouraged my students to be? If you’ve ridden much public transportation, you know that the norm is to keep your head down. No talking. No eye contact. “Popeye” and I sat next to each other, but my usual wariness was displaced. He spoke first, and I was fortunate to engage and to write down the encounter soon after.

The exercise is simple and often provokes something completely unexpected. All it takes is the intention to pay attention.

For the assignment, I ask my students to record one overheard line each day for a week, more if something catches their ear. I’m hoping it will. For an example of how to use these fragments, I give them a line I once heard on my way to class, spoken by one student to another. “I feel sorry for her, but . . .”

I ask them to finish that sentence in their journals and then continue the dialog between 2-3 characters of their invention, creating a scenario that carries on to some conclusion. It always amazes me what diverse dramas and comedies come out of that one catty phrase.

Memorable stories swirl around us everyday. You just need to listen.


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