A writer has to listen. That’s what I tell my writing students. As they sit there around the table, pens poised for the wisdom that a 28-year writer might have to impart, I give them some shocking advice. Never mind what your mother told you about minding your own business, I tell them, being a writer is a license to be nosy. Okay, we might get more polite and say a license to be curious–but you know what I’m saying. I’m saying that if you want to be able to craft credible, nuanced, life-like characters in your books, you have to start paying attention to the world around you.
I’ve taught in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont. In Florida and Nebraska and California. I’ve taught in church basements and art studios with paint smeared tables, in gorgeous conference rooms and the back rooms of bookstores. I’ve taught in air-conditioned classrooms and in facilities that were so overbooked I had to fight for my classroom and my desks and chairs every week. Most of the time, these days, I teach for Grub Street in and around Boston, although sometimes I’m found teaching in libraries in Maine for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Wherever I’ve taught, one thing that I will always tell my students is how important it is to be curious and observant about the world around them. Often I give out tiny notebooks, and for courses that meet weekly, one of the assignments my students will have, along with their weekly writing assignments, is to listen to conversations, observe other people, and pay attention to what they’re reading so they notice what’s striking or inspires an idea of their own, and to come in the following week with discoveries to share with the rest of us.
Most of the time, they do what they’re told. Sometimes a student will come in and report that she didn’t see anything. Usually, that means she’s been tuned into an iPod or a phone and tuning out the world. Sometimes it’s because he didn’t see anything that seemed interesting, a view that quickly changes as the other students start reading from their notes, and the amazingness of the quotidian begins to unfold.
To get them thinking about what’s out there, I sometimes start with a story or two of my own. For example, one night, on my way to that overbooked classroom in Harvard Square, I was waiting at a light to cross the street. In the clot of traffic that was moving through the light, there was an old wreck of a car, rust-blistered and traffic dinged, windows down on that hot night. The driver wore a wife-beater and dreadlocks, and as the car passed, an aria from an opera drifted out the window. Hot on it’s tailpipe came a Mercedes, with an impeccably dressed late-middle-aged WASPy couple perched on glove leather seats. Those windows were also down, and from inside the car came the teeth-rattling sound of rap music turned up high. The small Asian woman next to me and I exchanged glances, shook our heads, and crossed the street. If I’d been plugged in, or lost in thought, I would have missed it.
This past weekend, sitting at the table after blueberry pancakes, I mentioned that I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an incantation, or writer’s prayer, to use to begin tough sessions. Another writer sitting at the table intoned, “Oh, Lord, please help me still my inner critic long enough to create a shitty first draft (those last three words being a quote from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird). Later in the conversation, a mother was describing her son mastering balance on his bike. As he whizzed past her, he yelled, “Mom, I am the boss of right now!” I will cherish those words, share them with others, and try to be the “boss of right now” more often. But what if I hadn’t been listening?
Another reason I give them for being curious about the people around them is that at some point, most of them will be writing dialogue, and not everyone speaks alike. Start with your family and friends, I’ll say, and make them your laboratory. Notice the differences in how men and women speak. The generational differences. If your family and friends come from different parts of the country, or from different countries, how has that influenced the way they speak? Then I urge them to carry that noticing out into the workplace, into the broader community, and begin to pay closer attention to people’s word choices, speech rhythms, to how directly or indirectly they convey information. Before I give them their challenging writing assignment–to write a quarrel between two or more people, getting the identity, the voices, and the attitudes of your different speakers only through their words, without using any tags (not even he said, she said) or business–I tell them this story:
When she was in her late seventies, my mother, A. Carman Clark, who was a newspaper columnist and country living writer, stopped into the Vose Library in Union, Maine, looking for a mystery to read. After pulling several off the shelf to feed her voracious habit and reading the cover matter, she complained to the librarian that she was frustrated by her inability to find a mystery to read that wasn’t either too bloody or one that didn’t feature people who lived improbably grand lifestyles. She wanted a mystery that a gore-averse country mouse could enjoy.
“Mrs. Clark,” her friend the librarian responded, “if you don’t like what we have to offer here, why don’t you go home and write one?”
So write one she did. And when she gave the draft to some of her writer friends among the Maine Media Women, the response she got was this: We like your characters. We like your setting. We like your plot. But we find it hard to believe that all the residents in this small Maine town talk like seventh grade English teachers. (Which is what she had been for many years.) She realized then that she needed to pay closer attention to the people around her, so she could write a better mystery. She started listening to the people around her, and taking note of how they spoke. She would sit on a bench outside the post office and listen to people and they came and went.
The Maine Mulch Murder was published when she was 83.