Eavesdropping: Literary License to Listen

Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, and I’m eavesdropping on two kids, maybe just under and just over ten, the girl older by a bit. They stare at the chocolate covered cherry samples which Cherry Republic sets out in daring generosity. Because free samples of chocolate covered cherries draw children like flies, these are offered at the back of the store, in sight of the folks tending the counter. That way, if an unsupervised child gets carried away with sampling, a salesperson will approach, clear her throat and ask if she can help. The kids shove their hands into their pockets and poof, disappear. Case in point, these kids, maybe siblings, maybe friends, are sampling with enthusiasm. I’m standing near, pretending to study the cherry bar-b-cue sauces. I have just heard the boy say that the milk-chocolate covered cherries are—he’s got a soft voice and his mouth is full so I’m not sure—“sassy-good.” Sassy good? That’s what I hear.

The girls says, “Naa, those are blue, not red.”

What are they talking about? The chocolates? These chocolates come in the usual shades.

The boy is giggling, draws out “Sassky…toon…” Oh, I get it, “Saskatoon.”

He’s trying to persuade her the interior berries are saskatoons, not cherries, and of course, she knows better, ’cuz she’s older, and she has to correct him. Red, not blue, as in saskatoons, a cousin to blueberries. But here’s the captivating thing: I can tell he likes the sound of the word saskatoon—I do too, and maybe he just learned it and is enjoying saying it. It is a delicious word, not just because of the flavor it suggests: cool sweet ice on a warm day, but the play. In English, sass suggests defiance and toon contrasts with its soothing oooh. The “k” interrupts, quick and funny, that witty k. Who wouldn’t want that word, a word that is, by the way, a distortion of an indigenous name for a blueberry native to Canada.

But why that word? How did the boy learn it? What kind of children play with words like that? What kind of child takes pleasure in claiming that cherries are saskatoons. Sassygood kids? And from where in his spirit did his playfulness rise, and yes, she’s a bit of a know-it-all but not unkind, having fun with him, each of them sneakily lifting the spoon and tipping the sweets into their palms, eating the samples as they speak, and I’m just about to abandon the barbecue sauces and actually ask them when the salesperson makes her way toward them, and like small creatures of the woods, they flee out the front door. I’m left with a chocolate covered-mystery, a half-shaped dream of two children in a saskatoon field.

Last month, during the first in-person Interlochen Writers Retreat since 2019, artistic director Patty Ann McNair offered up an inspired craft talk, “Back to Basics: Building a Writing Habit (How Writers use Journals).” In her teaching, this “place made of pages” is where we stash those unique words, objects, memories, lists, sketches, doodles, even mishearings; where tiny shards are held in place until that day when the sliver of language (sentence, paragraph, list, sketch) demands life, and we, as writers, let curiosity lead us to make something of it. Patty led observational and associative exercises that rained inspiration on our journal pages.

In the process, she asked what experiences triggered our writing. I said, somewhat embarrassed, “Eavesdropping.” I was surprised when she and many people nodded. I was not alone in this invasive habit for which my mother would have me righteously scolded. It’s true I have always loved to eavesdrop, a behavior that annoys my David. If we are out to dinner and a lively conversation evolves at the next table, I am inclined to continue staring at him, but I am not listening. I am hearing the other conversation. He knows me well, waves his napkin to regain my attention (or surrender?). He is a good conversationist, but I am enamored of the questions that rise from these shards of talk at the next table. Their partialness triggers imagination—and invites a state of invention. Yes, on some level it is a violation of privacy, but not with malicious intent, rather with the intention of play—like those Saskatoon kids, and not unlike Patty’s invitation to journal; if we’ve eavesdropped that sassygood moment onto the page, play may germinate. Maybe it drives us to complete narrative, and maybe it nourishes literary license—that willingness to play with the clay, to shape it.

As a nonfictionist, these fragments trigger not only invention but memory—which can lead toward invention. A day I stopped on a Canadian highway and bought first a quart, then a case of hand-picked Saskatoons, lured by talk with the indigenous woman who had picked them. I only remembered that moment after I heard the children, after I noted the word, after its mental simmer. See? The practice of curiosity (including eavesdropping) is a universal pleasure and part of imaginative association. We word folk (writers and readers) are given permission to remake cherries into a berry, blue as a planet. And as long as our hearts are in the right place, and our hands reach for that notebook page, maybe we can listen with joy, eavesdrop with a word-lush license.