When I was a boy on our farm in southeastern Illinois, my parents had a telephone that was on a party line, which meant that if a small boy chose, as this one did, to pick up the phone from time to time, he might be able to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. My grandmother caught me one day and made it clear that I was a very bad boy to listen in on what our neighbors were saying. My mother reinforced this when she told me that eavesdropping was something polite people just didn’t do.
It strikes me now that this was very good advice that a child should listen to if he wanted to grow up to be a decent human being, but a lousy precept to follow if that same child wanted to grow up to be a writer. This isn’t to say that I deliberately listen to other people’s conversations, but how many times, while out in public, have I heard someone say something that eventually made its way into something I’ve written, or else aroused my curiosity so much that I created characters and events to populate a fictional world in which such a line of dialogue is possible.
My point is writers are always listening, always observing, always curious about and interested in the lives of others.
Here, then, are some other pieces of bad advice parents give their future writers.
Don’t make a scene! My parents used to tell me this all the time, particularly when we were out in public and I was about to be angry, about to cry, about to pout, about to whine, about to be over excited, etc. I suppose no parent wants to be embarrassed by his or her child in the public arena, but think about the message being sent to that child: it’s wrong to put our emotions on display; we should suppress our feelings and our interior lives. What would literature be like—lifeless, no doubt—if those kids who would one day be writers took this advice to heart? Our characters probably wouldn’t feel, wouldn’t think, wouldn’t interact with one another in any sort of interesting way. Restraint has its place—think of Chekhov’s advice to be colder when the moment on the page is intense—but sometimes we just have to let our characters go at one another with a rawness of emotion that resonates.
Mind your own business! Closely related to the “no eavesdropping” rule, this advice, though it may not mean to, suggests that we should leave other people alone and should have no interest in imagining what it must be like to live inside someone else’s skin. Think about what that would do to a writer’s construction of characters. Speaking for myself, I’ll say that my primary objective is to imagine what it is to be any one of my characters, no matter how different their lives may be from my own. Empathy is the key to good characterization, and how do we manage that if not from getting into the minds, the emotions, and the affairs of others?
Do unto others. This golden rule, passed on to countless children, tells us we’re to treat other people the way we want to be treated. This is excellent advice for our living but not so great for our writing. Stories so often come from characters who totally ignore this golden rule and, as a result, find themselves in all sorts of troubles that require a plot to resolve. It seems to me that a bit of selfishness is often necessary for a good story.
I suppose we could add turn the other cheek, haste makes waste, always obey your parents, and countless other things we heard in childhood to the list of bad advice for future writers. I’m exaggerating just a tad, of course, because I do believe that all of these rules of behavior are necessary and good for a civilized society. My point is good writing is often uncivilized. It requires a certain degree of curiosity about, and empathy for, the lives of others, just as it depends upon a certain measure of self-centered behavior and trouble. We can’t be too polite when we write. But we can adhere to one thing most of us heard when we were growing up, which I leave you with on this Labor Day: If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Excellent advice for all who write. Keep doing the good work!