Tattle Phone, a Writing Exercise

A few months ago, I was listening to Ira Glass on NPR while doing an errand. He was talking with David Kestenbaum about a preschool experiment in which kids were encouraged to say their complaints about unfairness into an unconnected red telephone in the classroom rather than to the teacher, who was tired of the tattling going on among her preschool students. For a while, the phone seemed to have a good effect on the children, who believed their “tattle” was going somewhere and knew it felt good to say what was bothering them about another child’s behavior toward them.

You can listen to the 12-minute podcast of “No Fair” at this link from the This American Life archive. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/672/no-fair/prologue-2

Or you can read the transcript here https://www.thisamericanlife.org/672/transcript

If preschool kids felt relief from injustice by picking up the tattle phone and talking about what they object to, then perhaps as writers we can benefit from tattling on ourselves. By coming clean with ourselves by picking up a metaphorical tattle phone and articulating behaviors of our own that we are not proud of, we might write an interesting piece or even a beginning to something longer if a topic develops. Even though the approach is more of a confessional than tattling, I like the connotation of tattling–for the children, it seemed that the behaviors they tattled on were smaller than ones that needed adult attention and certainly smaller than people might need to confess to a priest or a therapist if they had committed them.

So when I started writing, influenced by the preschooler’s small complaints, the behaviors I thought of didn’t have to be earth-shatteringly “bad” for creating this writing. They just had to be some of the little things we all know we shouldn’t get away with or worry we shouldn’t be able to get away with, but perform them anyway.

Here’s what I wrote from this idea:


I took my mother’s Good Grips vegetable peeler to my house because I’d once had two and could only find one, guilty in case I was incorrect about having brought one of mine to her house. I returned the peeler to her kitchen draw, though she never prepares food anymore.

I didn’t wash the Asian pears from my tree before I gave them to my neighbors as “ready to eat” as I always eat them right from the tree.

I have a students’ unique ceramic mug left at a conference a decade ago. She didn’t want to come back from a neighboring town to get it. I never thought to use it, its wide bottom and narrow neck of an opening off-putting to me. But now I see it keeps tea warm for longer than a traditional mug with a wide mouth. I use it every day, remembering her as I sip. I only feel bad some of the time for not driving her mug back though she never wanted to.

I forgot to check a friend’s front door for packages while she was away. Well, I was sick actually and forgot to do a lot of things. I felt well enough to check things out the last day before they returned and remembered to check their front door, back door, and by their garage, fingers crossed there would be no packages, fingers crossed there hadn’t been any earlier than the day I finally checked.

I didn’t mean it when I said yes to someone who wanted me to watch a movie with her. She asked when. I didn’t say, “How about never.” I postponed with “Let’s decide when I return from my upcoming trip.”

I told another friend who invited me to dinner that I still had a sinus infection even though the doctor said the antibiotics had cleared everything up.

I told my husband I wasn’t home when he called because I wanted to garden.

I didn’t garden. I curled up in front of the TV.


I hope you’ll find this writing exercise one that allows you to write from small things and take a peek inside of who you are and how you move through the daily world of relationships to others and yourself.

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