Go Into the World and Listen

January 5, 2023 § 26 Comments

By Margaret Hawkins

Simone Weil supposedly said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. We speak of paying attention, as if this gift is a currency. Writers certainly want to be paid in this currency (as well as in others, let me go on record as saying), but attention is also what writers pay to the world. Annie Dillard advises us to “admire the world for never ending on you – as you would an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.”

How to begin, though? I have various tricks, but here’s my favorite.


Go into the world and listen to what people are saying to each other. I used to tell students to eavesdrop but that’s the wrong word. You don’t have to stand under someone’s window or break any code of etiquette. All you need do is get in line at the post office, walk your dog, get a coffee. Everywhere, people are talking, often shouting into phones. Just tune in. Or maybe you’ll “overhear” words on a handmade sign or a t-shirt or tattooed on the tender inside of a girl’s forearm.

Go home and write it down. It belongs to you now. Let it steep for a few days, or years. Then give yourself ten minutes, or years, and write about it. It stuck in your memory, why? Who said it or don’t you know because it floated as a scream out of an upstairs window? Do you mind that you find yourself wondering if that person who said it is stupendously wrong? Or maybe she’s right. Which is worse? Write about that. Why did what you heard make vomit rise in your throat and your day go dark? Write about that if you dare.

What I usually find when I do this, and for me it’s more an addiction than an exercise, is some mystery at the heart of the overheard thing, or some secret, or a portrait of some pure emotion I recognize, but never recognized other people also felt. If I overhear someone yelling about politics while I’m walking my dog, the words slip away. I’ve heard it all before, this side and that in the same tired phrases. It’s the weird stuff in between—the infinite, subtle fractions of human experience that appear between the plodding integers that are our official opinions—that stop me in my tracks. I collect these bits like a treasure hunter and take them home to fondle in private.

There was the man who, when his male dining companion ordered a glass of wine, said, “My mother says men who drink wine are philanderers.” I still hear his voice, like Marlon Brando, and see him butter his steak the way you’d butter a stack of pancakes. Why did he bring his mother into it? I can’t stop thinking about him, or about the woman behind the counter at the jewelry store back when you had to go to such a place to replace your watch battery. She was wearing enormous, jewel-encrusted engagement and wedding rings, which I noticed when she gestured to the curled and faded snapshots of two King Charles spaniels taped to the cabinet behind her and said to the man in front of me, “They were the loves of my life.” And what’s up with the two signs posted side by side that I saw on a back road: “No Dumping Animal Carcasses” and “House for Sale”?

It’s these glimpses into private places that move me, like the weirdly excited feeling I got as a child when I would make myself think about the fact that every other person around me had an inside that was just as deep and unknown to me as I was to them. It was like thinking about the ocean or outer space or the Sunday School promise of eternal life or the infinity mirrors in the YMCA locker-room where I took swimming lessons that reflected me back to myself forever, a sight that kept me awake at night, terrified. Everything’s so much deeper than we want to believe.

I use this exercise in my classes. I tell students to go out and listen, then follow a quote and let it lead them exactly where they need to go in their writing that day. As for me, I don’t listen to help myself write; I listen because I can’t stop myself, and if this compulsion to know what’s going in other people’s lives ever goes away, I will not only no longer be a writer, I will no longer be alive.

So, if you want to jumpstart your daily writing practice, walk your dog. Or sit on a train or go get a haircut. Unless you live in a remote place, you will soon encounter other human beings, most of whom are on their phones ignoring the scenery and you. They are talking about their children, their parents, their spouses, other people’s salaries and sex lives and sometimes their own. Love and disappointment, and what’s for dinner. I have eavesdropped recipes and tried to recreate them. This is how I learned to put radishes in potato salad. All you need is one good quote to keep your keyboard busy all day.


Margaret Hawkins’ third novel, Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her memoir about family schizophrenia, How We Got Barb Back, came out in 2011. She writes essays and short fiction; “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” appeared in The Missouri Review in January 2022. Her column about art ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, and she now writes criticism for Visual Art Source and essays for The Democracy Chain. Margaret teaches at Loyola University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when she’s not writing or teaching, can be found walking her dog, Willem. She can be reached on her website.

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