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 clichés 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.

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