Listen to the Voices Oustide Your Head

“What did they expect? I’m a writer, and I use everything.

Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?”

— Truman Capote

It’s a cliche to tell a writer to walk around with a pad of paper and a pen. But if you’re a Southern writer, it’s not a suggestion. It’s a requirement to carry writing materials when you’re out and about, because you never know when someone’s going to say something wonderful. I don’t mean a marriage proposal or a TED talk. I mean a simple twist of phrase or pairing of words you might never hear again. That’s what Southern writers are looking for — good words.

My husband and I shop at flea markets in small towns, and I’m not shy about hauling out my pen and paper when I hear a few choice words. No one seems to notice or care that I’m transcribing their conversations. I will stop in an aisle, get out my notebook and pen, and quickly jot down which words caught my ear. Whoever’s talking may glance at me, but they just as quickly decide I’m not interesting — just a gal writing in her spiral. I’ll often also note the setting, the date, the time, and the outfits the speakers wear. This gives me a fuller memory to draw on when I go back to use the words, either for a poem or piece of fiction.

I could quote some gems for you here, but out of context, they’re not as interesting. I’d have to re-create the entire day, the full flea market, the heat of a summer morning when the sun blazes up over a ridge line, my habit of shopping for tiny chairs, and the color of the blanket the man had his goods on for it to make sense that it meant something when he said to me, “Everybody gotta feel like a king now and then.” Here, his words come out kinda ‘meh.’ At the end of a narrative poem working through the story, they’re much more ‘bam’ and ‘ta da.’

In the small town where I live, I take notes of wording to get to the dialect of the county where I’m setting a collection of novels. Here, the rhythm of words, the order in which they fall, and the mis-use of singulars, plurals, and verb forms defines the pitch of the local tongue. Hearing gems like, “He was hungry to eat,” and “She beat the brakes off that man” makes me whip out my pen to capture a dialect that’s disappearing. I hear these words, patterns, twists, and accents in my head when I go to write dialogue for one of the novels. Having them at hand — written down in black on white — keeps the words alive and fresh.

So there’s a reason it’s a maxim for writers to carry around paper and pen. And there are even more reasons why for Southern writers, it’s a rule.

Prompt:  What was the last phrase you heard that stuck in your ear? Write it down, and use the words as the basis for a story or poem. When you heard the words in real life, was the speaker being serious? Was s/he angry? Was s/he talking to you? Create a story around the words. Create a believable character to utter the words. And make the borrowed words carry the weight of the piece you write.

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