Never mind what mother told you. . .

LISTEN. . . even if you need an ear trumpet

It’s Kate, and I’m talking today about teaching.

A writer has to listen. That’s what I tell my writing students. As they sit there around the table, pens poised for the wisdom that a 28-year writer might have to impart, I give them some shocking advice. Never mind what your mother told you about minding your own business, I tell them, being a writer is a license to be nosy. Okay, we might get more polite and say a license to be curious–but you know what I’m saying. I’m saying that if you want to be able to craft credible, nuanced, life-like characters in your books, you have to start paying attention to the world around you.

I’ve taught in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont. In Florida and Nebraska and California. I’ve taught in church basements and art studios with paint smeared tables, in gorgeous conference rooms and the back rooms of bookstores. I’ve taught in air-conditioned classrooms and in facilities that were so overbooked I had to fight for my classroom and my desks and chairs every week. Most of the time, these days, I teach for Grub Street in and around Boston, although next week I’ll be at the Writers Conference at Ocean Park. Wherever I’ve taught, one thing that I will always tell my students is how important it is to be curious and observant about the world around them. Often I give out tiny notebooks, and for courses that meet weekly, one of the assignments my students will have, along with their weekly writing assignments, is to listen to conversations, observe other people, and pay attention to what they’re reading so they notice what’s striking or inspires an idea of their own, and to come in the following week with discoveries to share with the rest of us.

Most of the time, they do what they’re told. Sometimes a student will come in and report that she didn’t see anything. Usually, that means she’s been tuned into an iPod or a phone and tuning out the world. Sometimes it’s because he didn’t see anything that seemed interesting, a view that quickly changes as the other students start reading from their notes, and the amazingness of the quotidian begins to unfold.

Fill your pen with ink, and your ears with stories.

To get them thinking about what’s out there, I sometimes start with a story or two of my own. For example, one night, on my way to that overbooked classroom in Harvard Square, I was waiting at a light to cross the street. In the clot of traffic that was moving through the light, there was an old wreck of a car, rust-blistered and traffic dinged, windows down on that hot night. The driver wore a wife-beater and dreadlocks, and as the car passed, an aria from an opera drifted out the window. Hot on it’s tailpipe came a Mercedes, with an impeccably dressed late-middle-aged WASPy couple perched on glove leather seats. Those windows were also down, and from inside the car came the teeth-rattling sound of rap music turned up high. The small Asian woman next to me and I exchanged glances, shook our heads, and crossed the street. If I’d been plugged in, or lost in thought, I would have missed it.

This past weekend, sitting at the table after blueberry pancakes, I mentioned that I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an incantation, or writer’s prayer, to use to begin tough sessions. Another writer sitting at the table intoned, “Oh, Lord, please help me still my inner critic long enough to create a shitty first draft (those last three words being a quote from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird). Later in the conversation, a mother was describing her son mastering balance on his bike. As he whizzed past her, he yelled, “Mom, I am the boss of right now!” I will cherish those words, share them with others, and try to be the “boss of right now” more often. But what if I hadn’t been listening?

Another reason I give them for being curious about the people around them is that at some point, most of them will be writing dialogue, and not everyone speaks alike. Start with your family and friends, I’ll say, and make them your laboratory. Notice the differences in how men and women speak. The generational differences. If your family and friends come from different parts of the country, or from different countries, how has that influenced the way they speak? Then I urge them to carry that noticing out into the workplace, into the broader community, and begin to pay closer attention to people’s word choices, speech rhythms, to how directly or indirectly they convey information. Before I give them their challenging writing assignment–to write a quarrel between two or more people, getting the identity, the voices, and the attitudes of your different speakers only through their words, without using any tags (not even he said, she said) or business–I tell them this story:

When she was in her late seventies, my mother, A. Carman Clark, who was a newspaper columnist and country living writer, stopped into the Vose Library in Union, Maine, looking for a mystery to read. After pulling several off the shelf to feed her voracious habit and reading the cover matter, she complained to the librarian that she was frustrated by her inability to find a mystery to read that wasn’t either too bloody or one that didn’t feature people who lived improbably grand lifestyles. She wanted a mystery that a gore-averse country mouse could enjoy.

“Mrs. Clark,” the librarian responded, “if you don’t like what we have to offer here, why don’t you go home

The Maine Mulch Murder by A. Carman Clark

and write one?” So write one she did. And when she gave the draft to some of her writer friends among the Maine Media Women, the response she got was this: We like your characters. We like your setting. We like your plot. But we find it hard to believe that all the residents in this small Maine town talk like seventh grade English teachers. (Which is what she had been for many years.) She realized then that she needed to pay closer attention to the people around her, so she could write a better mystery. She started listening to the people around her, and taking note of how they spoke. The Maine Mulch Murder was published when she was 83.

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21 Responses to Never mind what mother told you. . .

  1. What great advice, Kate — thank you. My family always wonders why I never have my ipod charged or with me. Yes, I love music but I need to be listening just as you suggest.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    A-men, Kate! When I first (about 20 years ago) took a deep breath and decided it was finally time to start writing fiction – not just the nonfiction that had supported me until then – I started journaling. I carried a notebook with me. Everywhere. (I still do. And always show it to classrooms of unbelieving students, young and old.) I have files full of those notebooks. Sometimes I re-read them. They’re rich with moments – in my life, and in the lives of others I’ve observed. They’re the depth to the manuscripts I’m writing now.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Lea…seems to me that I remember you in one of my classes years ago, yes? I always wonder if my students know how much they inspire me, even as I’m hoping I’m inspiring them.

      • Lea Wait says:

        You’re right, Kate! I took one of the classes you taught at Maine Writers & Publishers! And I incorporated one of the exercises you gave us into the first book I wrote that was published .. a book set in 1806 named STOPPING TO HOME. I was so impressed by your command of writing skills! (Still am, actually …!) Lea

  3. Pj Schott says:

    That’s a keeper. Some treasures in there. Please keep these articles archived forever.

  4. Maria Lima says:

    Awesome post, Kate! I adore people watching/observing. Humanity is just so bloody *interesting*.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Thanks, Maria. It’s just amazing what you’ll see if you look around. The act of wondering “What’s that about?” inspires a lot of stories.

  5. Norma Huss says:

    LOVE mother first published at 83! Took me almost that long.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Norma…when did you publish? I use stories like yours and my moms when aspiring writers sigh and tell me they’re sure it’s too late. It’s never to late to go after this dream.

  6. mollie bryan says:

    First, I love that you give out tiny notebooks to your students. What writer could resist a filling up a tiny notebook? Second, what a GREAT story about your mom.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Mollie…one of my series characters, Thea Kozak, has the mother from hell. Once, at a bookstore, someone in audience asked if Thea’s mother was modeled on mine. I was shocked, because my mother, eccentric though she sometimes was, was a great mentor and role model, and later, a great friend.

      • Barb Ross says:

        My short story “Key West” in Thin Ice this year has the mother from hell in it. She’s not even slightly modeled on my mother (in fact she’s almost closely the mother of a friend).

        But, funnily, my own mother dislikes the story intensely and can’t articulate why. “I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”

  7. What a terrific accomplishment for your mother!! Thanks for the post. I am lucky in that if I listen to my mother’s advice…she usually turns out to be right. And as the mother of a likely future writer, when she told me she was listening in on “that couple–right over there’s” conversation the other day, I said, Try and make sure they don’t know you’re doing it.

  8. Brenda says:

    I really enjoyed this post! Your mother’s story is wonderful too.

    Someone told me that Elmore Leonard took one of those little notebooks everywhere he went when he was taking notes in New Orleans before he wrote “Bandits.” Ever since I was told that I have carried a little notebook with me. I am so glad you give them to your students, Kate. By having them, you always have good dialogue samples but of places sometimes now long gone, not just the overheard dialogue. Kolb’s in New Orleans was a wonderful restaurant from 1899 until the 1990s. Without that little notebook I would not have a description of what it was like inside.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Brenda…a lot of writers carry those notebooks, and have whole files of them. These days, you can record things on your phone. The trouble is that all that electronic stuff can be so ephemeral…while the written word is still there a hundred years on.

  9. Joyce Carman Lovelace says:

    Like your Mom I am disturbed by mysteries which have too graphic a description of the murder, or too much about the sexual intimacies of the investigators. I loved Maine Mulch Murder. I’ve tried cozies, but they are often a little too cute. I also like mysteries that are not about murders, rapes etc.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Joyce…she was definitely onto something. I have the manuscript of the next Creighton mystery, The Corpse in the Compost. I should edit it and get it out there for people who loved Maine Mulch.

  10. Jeri Bates says:

    I’ll be the first in line to buy Corpse in the Compost. I just finished reading Maine Mulch and adored every word. I got it from Inter-Library loan from a little town called Squamish, in BC. And I am on the big island off the coast of British Columbia, in Victoria, just about as far from Maine as you can get. Your mother’s book travels well.


  11. MCWriTers says:

    Jeri…I love it that you just read her book out in BC. Visiting your island is still on my wish list, though I did get as far as the San Juans a few years ago. And we’re on our way to Lake Louise area for some hiking. Meanwhile, I’m glued to my desk, finished a book about a story (a real murder) that takes place on the other side of your country…in New Brunswick.

    I’ll let you know if Corpse finds it way into print…and meanwhile…let me know if you’d like your very own copy of Maine Mulch. I have a few of them around.


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