Lend Me Your Ears
How often do you listen to other writers speak? I don’t mean reading what they’ve written, but listening to them talk out loud—hearing the words drip from their lips. When authors share prepared remarks or better, speak off the cuff, you get a whole different insight into their writing—and your own.
I was hunting interesting websites to share with my Creative Power Writing Facebook friends last night, and as things happen, one idea snowballed into another. Weird Al Yankovic’s Word Crimes video popped up and I bookmarked it as a future post; then I thought, Hey, maybe I should look for more videos!
So I typed “writing” into the box on YouTube. The usual writing instruction and tips videos popped up, but also videos of authors giving speeches and doing interviews and 3-5-minute inspirational clips. A half-hour video of Stephen King answering audience questions at The University of Massachusetts Lowell revealed how King balances story and poetic language, how he develops characters, and why he loves kids as protagonists. He may be scary, but King is a funny guy, too! At one point, he started gushing a little too much about kids and had to stop himself: “I’m starting to sound like Michael Jackson, so I’d better shut up.”
I was reminded of the time I heard then-U. S. Poet-Laureate Billy Collins speak to a packed house at Rowan University. He is soft-spoken and deadpan, so it was all the funnier when he landed a zinger in his poem about Victoria’s Secret models. Hearing Collins unlocked the world of poetry for me, which might never have happened had I not attended his talk that night. I blogged about this in my 3/9/15 WowPowBlog post, “I (Used to) Hate Poetry.”
Living or working in a university community provides an invaluable opportunity for writers to listen to other writers. (I hate that word, “invaluable”—it always sounds like it means “not valuable.”) Again at Rowan, I attended a talk by Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and American Gods. He shared a clever storytelling method that I later used with my creative writing students. He told a story Jeopardy-style, entirely through answers. Not until the very end did he reveal the questions. Gaiman also dismissed the concept of “writer’s block,” reminding us that grocers don’t get grocer’s block or house painters painter’s block. Each of us, he suggested, has within us multiple tools to enable us to break through when we feel stuck.
My preferred genre is creative nonfiction, so I was thrilled when Gay Talese, author of Honor Thy Father and A Writer’s Life, spoke at Rowan. He spun fascinating tales about time he spent with mobsters, Frank Sinatra, and men who built the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In many cases, like when he profiled boxer Floyd Patterson, he moved in with and shadowed his subject for months at a time. I asked him about the logistics of writing faithful dialogue and reporting details in a story that happened years ago; he dismissed the question with a curt, “You simply tell the truth.”
Here’s How to Get Started Listening to Authors
If you are fortunate enough to live in a community where authors speak, go listen! If not, take advantage of the many wonderful videos on YouTube. You’ll need to be selective, as you can’t simply type in “writers” and immediately find something that will blast your booties off. Here are some guidelines to help you find something meaningful.
1. First, choose a favorite author.
2. Then, decide what sort of information you’d like to hear:
- What inspires him or her (The Toni Morrison video linked below is an example of this)
- His or her writing process
- Writing tips or techniques
- Are you interested in a specific book?
3. What format would you like the talk to be in?
- Interview (The J. K. Rowling video linked below is an example of this)
- Q&A (The Stephen King video linked below is an example of this)
- Talk show appearance
- Round table with other authors
- Two-minute motivational clip
4. Look for a video with the focus you seek. Later, branch out to other authors who will help you develop your craft.
Whom do you listen to? Share below!
Get Started Right Now!
Here are a few excellent videos to get you started:
Stephen King Answers Questions—AWESOME! This is the video I mentioned above, with King at UMass Lowell.
Toni Morrison Talks About Her Motivation for Writing The Bluest Eye
Oprah Interviews J. K. Rowling: The full video