books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The #1 Talent You Need to be a Good Writer

The brilliant columnist/philosopher/literary outlaw Michael Ventura famously said the most important talent required of a writer is the ability to work alone. In his 1993 Sun article, The Talent of the Room , Ventura wrote,

“Writing is something you do alone in a room. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer….Unless you have that, your other talents are worthless.”

But it occurred to me recently that writers no longer have to be as isolated as we were when Ventura wrote those words eighteen years ago. With the click of a mouse, we can communicate with fellow scriveners all over the world. One of the ways technology has altered our universe is that we can now emerge from a session with the muse, pop onto the Internet and tweet, blog, email or whatever and be part of a community.

We’re not so alone in our rooms any more.

But there’s another talent that may be even more important than a capacity for solitude—and that is the ability to get out of our rooms and LISTEN.

Without knowing how to listen attentively, we can only write about ourselves. All our characters will act and sound like us. And readers don’t care much about us. As Margaret Atwood said in Narrative magazine this week : “Nothing interests people so much as themselves.”

All writers may need the talent of the room, but GOOD writers need the talent to shut the *&%! up and listen.

Our technological culture does not listen well. I thought about that last week when a walk in my favorite nature preserve was ruined by some Bozo talking loudly on his cell phone. Talking. Not listening. Hardly even stopping for breath.

I started to wonder if the other person in his conversation was compulsively talking as well, and I was hearing one of two lonely Bozos, both loudly failing to communicate--as is so often the case with real humans.

YA writer Hannah Moskowitz brought this up on Nathan Bransford’s blog last week. She left a comment to his great post on 7 keys to writing good dialogue saying:

“In real life, people don't listen well. They've already formulated most of what they're going to say before they've heard the other person's side of the conversation.”

She’s so right. Most people do a whole lot more talking than listening.

But as writers, we must do the opposite. Otherwise, we’ll create the kind of unbelievable dialogue Nathan warns us against—lines like:

“As you know, Remus, we are twin brothers who were raised by wolves…”

Or characters who say what they’re actually thinking, instead of skirting around the elephants the way real people do:

“Holy batshit, Robin, let’s ditch this Joker and get ourselves a room.”

Or conversations that exist only to show off the writer’s expertise and/or wit:

“While the lady sat on the pouffe and nervously fingered her reticule, Watson said, ‘Hey Sherlock, do you know the one about the platypus who walked into a bar…’”

 Or you’ll fill your character’s mouths with predictable clich├ęs and overused tropes, instead of the wildly unexpected things that pop into real conversations. Like that Bozo in the nature preserve who shouted into his phone,

              “Walt Disney died for your sins, Bro!”

What a gift. I'm sure going to use that in a story.

I think a lot of people become writers because we’re not big talkers. Our early lives may have been dominated by noisier friends or family members. (How many writers are middle children, I wonder?) We write because we want to have our say—to get somebody to listen to US.

But during the process of writing, we come to realize our best stories are mosaics of the voices and stories we have listened to—all those snippets of other people’s lives that have been thrust upon us by the loud and Bozoid. We take the raw material of their non-communications and make it into something that truly communicates.

A good writer offers readers an echo chamber in which they can hear themselves.

In The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut invented a life form he called Harmoniums, who could only communicate two messages: “here I am, here I am, here I am,” and  “so glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

Maybe Earthlings aren’t so different. Noisy Bozos with cellphones are the “here I ams” and writers are the “so glad you ares.” Out of their seemingly pointless noise, we make art that reflects the truth of their own existence.

It is our way of being heard. And our reward for listening.


  1. That's how I feel. That's why I called my blog Listen to the Voices.


  2. God you're brilliant! I just love coming here on Sundays.

    I love being alone in my room. I hate the outside world and people give me the creeps. If I didn't have to bring the baby to school, I'd never leave my house. Now that might make me agoraphobic but I'd rather be inside my own head, listening to the voices there, trying to find out WHY they're saying what they're saying, than try and have conversation with real people who don't want to LISTEN to what I have to say.

    Hannah was right, people don't listen well, and I've come to the conclusion, I don't need to talk if they won't listen. I can have more amusing conversations with my characters on any given day. At least they interact, and not just talk about themselves.

    On a side note -- Trying to "slow blog" I just wrote 14 blog posts for the next two weeks. I don't know if that's good or bad, I only know I don't have to worry about blogging for 14 days.

  3. Marvelous post. Those concepts transitioned well together - the type of writing I'm always trying to accomplish on my own blog.

    thanks for sharing this important message about listening.


  4. Middle child :) So that's why!

    Although I doubt I could be called quiet lol. . . I believe chatterbox was the phrase used to describe moi!

    Great post as always :)

  5. Anne, I think this is what I love most about writing, the ability to listen in and escape into someone else's adventure.

    There are days where I long for the quiet, even where quiet is most appropriate for my goals. But people are what make my stories, so I must stay in the business of learning people.

  6. Brilliant post! And beautifully written. I am, what I call, a “smack in the middle” child. Funny, I never thought about that as being a reason I became the family writer. I find it infinitely easier to be a listener than a competitor in the conversational screaming match. And much more interesting. I already know how I speak, what I think, how I see things. I love the unexpected phrases,of people in life and the characters in my head. We have to shut up and listen to them too. Thanks again for the insight!

  7. *Raises hand.* Middle child! (Well, I was the middle child when it came to me and my two cousins, at least...but we were like siblings anyway, so...)

    Loved this post--so true! I like to keep a running file of things I've overheard and seen.

  8. I've always been a good listener. Which leads to people revealing more about themselves then they thought they would. People talk to fill the silence. I also love to listen to people's conversations on the bus and have been known to follow people down the road to hear the rest of their conversation.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this - and I'm strangely tempted to write a story including all those awful bits of dialogue!

    I do definitely agree - I for one much prefer to listen to others, often with a sort of horrified fascination ...

  10. I am "Alone" as Ann Wilson and love it! :)Really couldn't have it any other way.

    As for family I was the youngest and often had to listen to all those know-it-alls. Writing indeed gives me the chance to have my own say.

  11. Thanks for all your comments, lone listeners (and middle children) out there! You're confirming what I suspected--that most writers are the ones over in the corner, quietly recording all the stupid things said by the "winners" of the conversational screaming matches. (Great phrase, Christine!)

    Simon, I want to see that story!

  12. I really like this. I had a moment of really WISHING I was alone to write... my husband came in, looked over my shoulder, and said, "I don't like your first sentence." I need to learn to keep the door closed!

  13. It is a solitary journey we share with others, believing some of them will love it as much as we do.

  14. Middle child! And I do love eavesdropping on people...

    This is great inspiration to stay centered, keep listening and working toward authenticity. Thanks :)

  15. Dearest Miss Allen,
    Bravo. I imagine many a writer & blogger will be referring to your quotable point, "A good writer offers readers an echo chamber in which they can hear themselves."
    Another fine post,

  16. Presume this also falls in line with what really good actors say about watching people carefully then using those bits in developing characters. They're both listening and looking/watching very carefully. I'm sure good writers have to be doing the same, which may lead to a new formula, modified from advice I got in art school: Look three times, think twice, draw once. (or carpentry, measure twice, cut once.)

  17. As a newly embarked author, leaving the noisy commotion of teaching, I love and treasure the alone-ness of it all. I am quieting myself to hear my own words and the words of others, even those no longer here. Thanks for your generous wisdom.

    Emily Allison


  18. Lovely article, loved the bit about being the middle child.I am one and agree with what you have said..."I think a lot of people become writers because we’re not big talkers."
    love this punch line...
    "A good writer offers readers an echo chamber in which they can hear themselves."



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