Lessons from behind the mic

In my other life, I ask questions. And I find people to answer those questions.

Part of my job involves interviewing people. After doing this for over 15 years, I realize:

  • Enthusiasm can trump education when it comes to describing what you know.
  • You can tell how well (or poorly) the interview will go in the first 15 seconds.
  • If the interviewee is reluctant to talk, don’t push to make it happen. It won’t be good.

What I learned about talking to people can be applied to a writing practice. Let’s take it step by step.

Enthusiasm

You don’t have to have an MFA to be a good writer. In fact, for some individuals more and more “education” can result in less flexibility. You think you have to write a certain way. You try to be “literary” or sound like a writer, using clever description and complex sentence structure. This is the enemy of clarity.

Good writing often feels transparent, as if the author is sitting next to you and you know each other well. You don’t have to impress with your words. Let your energy and passion come  through, and in the first draft stage, that’ll take you far enough. (Later stages, when editing comes into play, will be discussed in another post.)

First 15 seconds 

It’s often said that 600 words can be comfortably read aloud in 3 minutes. So 200 words equals 1 minute, and 50 words equals 15 seconds.

As a writer, you’ll want to grab a reader in those first 15 seconds. So what you do with those first 50 words is critical.

Here’s the opening words to Anna Karenina — the first 50 are in bold, and I’ll give you an extra 47 in case you’re a fast reader:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it.

If this were an interview, clearly it would be a good one.

So is it a good enough story to keep on reading? Are you hooked?

Reluctance

This is a hard one to assess. There’s stubbornness and resistance, which many would-be writers struggle with, and then there’s real reluctance.

The first two often have to do with how non-writers perceive writing — that good writing is easy, that it comes all in one piece from some source outside you and you’re just the conduit.

I bristle whenever I read that sort of statement from a writer, because it implies that writing you need to work at isn’t good writing.

Most skilled work requires work — the act of doing it again and again to perfect technique. We hire plumbers, roofers, tilers because those are jobs we’ll never do often enough to get good at. If you tile on a casual basis, I don’t want you putting up the tub surround in my bathroom. It may look bad or uneven and worse, it may leak.

So the next time you resist sitting down and writing because you don’t feel like it — because ‘the inspiration’ isn’t there –realize that you won’t get very far insisting that you have to be in the right mood to write.

That’s stubbornness — bullheadedness.

But reluctance is different.

If you’re reluctant, there are more forces at work, and usually fear underlies reluctance and all the negativity that tags along. Does this sound like you?

  • You may not feel qualified or worthy to write.
  • You may have hesitation regarding your skills.
  • You may approach the work half-hearted, writing tentatively instead of plunging right in.

Pushing through reluctance isn’t the answer, as it often is with stubbornness. If you write with reluctance, your work will be weak and lack conviction. And this in turn will make you feel as if you’re a lousy writer, so you’ll feel even greater reluctance. The cycle is self-perpetuating. You can’t break through reluctance. You have to overcome it.

You need to bolster yourself as a writer. You need support. Some ideas:

  • Read a highly recommended writing book. I like to see what people are talking about on GoodReads and on writing websites. (I’ll list a few in the sidebar in due time. Don’t just browse the reviews on Amazon — I’ve ordered some real stinkers that way.)
  • Sign up for a writing class. Where I live, you can find them through the YMCA, BOCES, adult learning classes at the local university and community college, and even the library. There are also many writing classes online. Again, look for recommendations.
  • Join a writing group. You can find them on Meetup.com, the local library again, or some bookstores. And be warned: writing groups are like shoes — they either fit or they don’t. Don’t force one that isn’t a fit. Look for another.

Just know this. Eventually, if you try one or more of the above, something will trigger you enough so that your enthusiasm will overcome your reluctance, and you’ll feel a real need to write. This will probably enable you to write better, more confidently, and stronger than if you sit down and push yourself despite your fear-based reluctance.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll interview you someday.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from behind the mic

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