Fostering Creativity – Part 2

You don’t say…


That’s a declarative, not an imperative sentence. At some point when I reached, ehem, maturity, I made a conscious decision to become a good listener. I’m not that much of a talker to begin with (well, maybe after a few glasses of wine…) and some people can certainly rattle on and on which can be extremely vexing as you try to ease them into a soft landing and make your escape, but I’ve found that being a good listener has had incredible benefits for me as a writer.

Everyone has a story.

In the current novel I’m writing, one of my main characters talks a lot. He talks a lot of bullshit in fact being something of a prevaricator, but he also reveals a lot: about the characters, about the overarching story, and in the midst of all the b.s. the clues to solving the mystery.  Agatha Christie often buried the solutions to her puzzles in the dialogue of her chattiest (and silliest) characters, and woe to the reader who skipped over those parts. 

It helps me to write believable characters by listening to real people’s stories and observing their facial expressions and gestures when they talk. Or when they stop talking. For example, when the talker finally pauses to take a breath and it’s the other person’s chance to speak, do they listen in turn? Or do they look at their watch (or phone) or shift their eyes around the room for the next poor soul they can use as their sounding board, or worse simply walk away when the other person is in mid-sentence? Back in the day they’d call that “a boor,” today an “A-hole.” I’m not naming names, but I saw that happen recently, and it was a rather hilarious moment (although I might have felt differently if I had been the recipient). I filed it away in the writing cache.

Sometimes you will hear a story that you’ll never forget. My father was a gifted storyteller in the oral tradition. He told me about when my grandfather was a child in the Alpine region of Northern Italy, his father (my great-grandfather) fell through the hay loft of their barn. As he lay on the dirt floor, he slowly ran his hand down my grandfather’s face…then died.

My grandfather carried that story with him from Italy to Philadelphia. My father retold it to me complete with the dramatic hand gesture down my cheek as I imagine his father had to him. How true it is I don’t know. My father loved to embellish for dramatic effect, and you didn’t want to be the kid who pointed out his inconsistencies when he was in the middle of a good yarn, but I never forgot that story, and somewhere in my writing I will include that scene because it’s just so beautifully heartbreaking.

People love to talk. 

In my social experiments, I’ve learned that 95% of the time people would rather listen to themselves talk than listen to what someone else has to say. That’s just human nature. But for writers trying to be more creative, it’s truly helpful to talk less and listen more, and save your own voice for where it counts–on the page.

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