[Tipster] Experience, Observation, and Imagination

tipster post Jan 21, 2022

William Faulkner, the great American writer from the first half of the twentieth century, once said:. 

“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination ... 

 So much of today's writing is weak simply because the prose is supported by personal experience ("my personal story") only.

And that is fine, I guess. As far as it goes. Our stories are important.

And certainly imagination is critically important.

But what's missing from our writing may be observation.

Stop Talking Already!

I'm going to go out on a limb to say that curiosity is what's most lacking in the writing of those we (Melissa and me) read.

What I mean by that is this: Because many of us are not curious people, we are not good observers of people.

And thus our writing lacks nuance and authenticity.

We want to talk about ourselves. As a result, we're horrible listeners.

And thus, we rarely observe real human behavior. We're too busy talking to observe.

Talk, Talk, Talk

Go to any party and ask the woman standing next to the bar about how her son is doing in high school. (This assumes that you knew something about her before the party.)

Most likely, this person will ramble on for seventeen minutes about how smart her son is, that he's headed to Notre Dame in the fall, and that he was captain for the football team.

She won't catch a breath.

She won't pause and say, "Thank you for asking. I know you have several kids. Where are they in school?"

This is the nature of modern life.

I used to do this about my son, Cory, who was a high school wrestler, and about my son Christian, who played college football.

We are all about trumpeting to others how great our kids are, how relaxing the vacation was in Cancun, and how much our new kitchen cost.

We want to talk.

Talk, talk, talk.

Listen, Ask, Listen

If you want to become an exceptional writer, start to ask good questions. And then listen.

Then ask a good follow-up question.

You'll start to observe the raised eyebrow every time your friend mentions her mother-in-law.

Or you will hear the contempt in your neighbor's voice every time he talks about his ex-wife.

You'll start to observe how people actually talk when they are excited.

The first thing you'll learn is that people rarely speak in complete sentences.

You'll hear the rise and fall in the tone of their voice.

You might observe someone running his hand through his hair repeatedly.

All this is grist for your writing, whether you write fiction or nonfiction.

Imagination and experience are not enough.

In short, work to be more curious of others.

If you want, for example, to write dialogue that moves your stories along and truly engages the reader, you need to know a thing or two about how people really talk.

You can only learn that by listening.

And you only have something to listen to if you stop talking long enough to ask someone a question.

And then a follow up question. It's the follow-up question that is the most important question.

Then, truly listen. And observe.

Write down later what you observed, after you get home from the cocktail party.

For more on this, you can listen to a podcast that Melissa and I published on How Curiosity Makes Your Writing Memorable.



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