Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Listening Leads to Better Writing?

Can listening to other people lead to better writing? I sure would like to think so. I mean, we all know that watching our surroundings can not only give us ideas for our stories, but our observations can lead to elements that work themselves into our writing without us really even recognizing it. The way people look at each other, the mannerisms that random people seem to duplicate, and even the oddities that stick out in our minds; these observations can be priceless tools to use as we write.
Something I noticed at Barnes & Noble this afternoon:
She waited in the line for customer service, probably looking for a specific book she needed pulled up in the computer. A girl, I presume to be her two year old daughter, was held lovingly in her right arm. It was tattooed, and while I could make out wings, it didn't appear to be an angel she had imprinted on her once delicate skin. I looked away as she made eye contact, I hadn't meant to stare. She seemed pleased that I was admiring her ink, I walked by without a second glance. I'm quite sure it wasn't an angel. Faeries have wings, though I couldn't be sure it was even one of those, the image had looked rough and somewhat manly.
I saw her again at the magazine rack as I attempted to help my wife find one dedicated to cake decorating. My search was not looking promising so I stole another glance at the ink, her other bicep had a scrawled design as well. I've never gotten a tattoo myself, but I could tell the dark lines on her back were fresh by the shiny cellophane that covered them. Her daughter was silently inching away from her and I couldn't help but wonder if she wasn't just affording me another look at her art. I looked away again and walked over to the writing magazines. I didn't write down the submission address for the short story compilation mag that I normally write on a scrap of paper and lose a short time later; but I thought about it.
I turned to find my wife, we should be leaving soon. The young woman was standing in front of me and I looked down at her daughter who was grinning back up at me with a mischievous grin I recognize from having three little ones of my own.
"What did you just put in your mouth!?" Her mother demands and the child turns away in stubborn defiance; a dance that has played out through the ages since the dawn of time, I'm sure.

So, that's my result from casual observance. The payoff of my efforts is mostly right here in this post. I am sure I'll take some small token of the experience with me as I write new projects but any reference to this particular event may seem trivial. What then about listening to the stories of others? Unless you get permission to make the story your own and put it into print, you might get into a spot of trouble. That's never been my desire anyway. Someone once said (and I can't remember where I heard it) when writing for the screen you must take care not to write events just as they happen, there is a certain flow that must be sustained. Ken Armstrong could probably better attest to that with his experience with writing plays. My point is, I like listening to people for a similar reason that I like reading. I'm not looking for direct inspiration. That said, I think I just like listening to other people tell their verbal stories about their experiences because it helps define them as people. The more you know about people and the more you discover about their personalities and perspectives, the better you can flesh out believable characters. Your characters don't even have to have anything in common with the people you know, you just have to know how real people are built.
Who am I really to give writing advice? No one. Not by any industry standard anyway. Consider any form of advice in this blog as an outward expression of the advice I give myself. You are welcome to take what you wish and consider the rest as simple comedic relief or what have you.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in the stories in our heads that we forget that there are people in the world who are deathly afraid of being labeled as writers. They may type with one finger and some may have never even looked at a computer. These people will never put pen or pencil to paper to chronicle their lives but if you get them talking and they sense they have a listening ear, they will tell you the most interesting stories you've even heard. They will tell you stories that industry would never print for lack of prospective sales. That's the problem with taking in published works as a sole input. What we see and hear eventually impacts us and if you are only reading what a small group of people think to be profit worthy, you are doing yourself a great disservice.

(By the way, 30 Days of Night was okay. The story was a little unbelievable to me simply because I've lived in Alaska. Forget about the vampires. I expect a little craziness from a vamp movie.)

Creative Writing Exercise:
Try to recall the last story someone told you.


Laura Brown said...

You can learn a lot from listening. How much of a story is in dialogue after all. Mostly I listen and get inspired by something I hadn't known before. I found out about so many new things by listening to someone else tell me about their adventures, hobbies, etc.

Hope the cake decorating is going well.

I'm using EC as my excuse for being late for work today. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. ;)

Ken Armstrong said...

Enjoyed this post.

You're so wise to listen to/watch everyone - thar's gold in them thar hills!

And your recording of your encounter with the inked-girl and her daughter is a fine piece of work that will doubtless return to reward you unexpectedly in the midst of some future writing endeavour.

Somebody was recently picking me up on events in my last play and I was telling them, "Yeah, that actually happened here, and that atually happened there." and they said, "You're not making stuff up at all - you're just writing down stuff you've seen and making a story out of it."

I was complimented :)

Fiendish said...

Nice post. I think any good writer is a good observer. It's translating reality into language that's the hard part.

Also, when you said "it" was tattooed, I wasn't sure whether you meant her arm or her daughter.

Jim Murdoch said...

I wrote once, "Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research," and what you're writing about here just testifies to that. And who says you can't give advice? That right comes via experience. The guy who has written one story knows more than the one who has written no stories. And even if that other guy has written one story too his experience will be different to yours.

I'm not sure what whoever meant when he said that "you must take care not to write events just as they happen" because sometimes that's exactly what you want to do. How could the film Apollo 13 be presented any other way? The bottom line though is that most people's lives aren't very interesting so I can see where writers have taken the truth as a starting point. A good example would be Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus which uses the characters in her life and creates and environment and story that gives the uncomfortable (and yet you can't look away) feel of her photos. I am a great believer in using anything and everything that comes your way and that includes TV and film; it's all grist for the mill.