A few years ago, back when I was a cubicle dweller, I had the privilege of representing my publishing house at a local writers’ conference. I stocked up on Altoids (licorice, because that’s just how I rolled back then), made sure there was a pitcher of water nearby, sat down at my table and awaited the first of twelve victims…um…I mean hopeful authors.
I’m far from a conference expert, but my limited experience has taught me that the one-to-one meetings with unpublished authors can be endurance tests for both the editor and the writer. The editor, though hopeful to find that rarest of creatures – a writer with more talent than even she knows – instead usually finds himself queuing up “not for us” and “needs work” sentences that will temporarily destroy the writer’s dreams no matter how politely they’re delivered. Meanwhile, the writer sits on the edge of her chair (literally and figuratively) listening for words like “promise” and “potential” while attempting to excuse other words like “not for us” and “needs work” as evidence of the editor’s obvious inability to identify great writing.
Every once in a while, that rare creature does appear and the editor (and author) both walk away from the conference giddy and hopeful.
But this isn’t a post about that sort of rare creature. It’s about another kind.
The writer who hasn’t learned to listen.
She sat down at my table just before noon, her navy blue three-ring binder held tight to her chest like a child she might accidentally suffocate. She presented it to me and began to explain why her novel about an angel who saves a man from suicide was probably the best novel ever written about an angel who saves a man from suicide. “Lots of people have said so,” she added, then started to describe the plot while I tried to read the sample chapter in front of me.
It was not good. And by “not good” I mean “bad.” The writing was amateurish, the plot (or what I could determine of the plot) was somehow both meandering and predictable, and the dialogue was just this side of awful. I can’t remember the specifics (thankfully), but I do recall the feeling I experienced while reading. So in an attempt to share that feeling with you, I present this completely fabricated excerpt:
* * *
“I am going to jump off of this bridge,” Simon yelled. He was standing on the edge of the gray metal bridge that was also rusty and at least fifty feet above the water below that was rushing by like a rushing river.
Just then, a bright light came on on the opposite side of the bridge except there wasn’t a lamp post there so it couldn’t be a light. Could it be an angel? Yes it was!!!
“Do not jump!” said the angel. “I am here to save you!”
“I do not want to be saved,” said Simon. “I want to kill myself.”
“Why?” said the Angel.
“Because my wife left me and I drink too much alcohol and take drugs and say curse words and look at porn.”
“Those are very bad things, but that does not mean that you should kill yourself.”
“Because life is worth living!”
The bright light that was actually an angel moved closer to him and reached out her hands (she was a girl angel) to him. When she got close enough to touch him, he grabbed her hands…and threw her over the bridge.
* * *
Okay, that last part wasn’t in the story. I wish it had been, then I would have had something encouraging to say about “out of the box thinking.”
Instead, I gave her some of my best (and most polite) “not for us” and “needs work” sentences. I didn’t want to discourage her desire to write, but believed I would be doing her a service if I gently lowered her expectations about being published through traditional methods.
She stared at me with open-mouthed horror, as if I’d just said aliens kidnapped her dog and impregnated her husband.
This is when I made my fatal mistake: I decided to fill the awkward silence with helpful editorial advice.
She had a ready excuse for everything I offered. It was essentially the same excuse, whether I was offering tips on dialogue or character or plot.
“You’re wrong,” she said.
I was glad when the next appointment walked into the room, but she wasn’t quite ready to leave. She kept saying over and over “everyone I know loves this story” while I refrained from explaining they were probably high at the time. Or just trying to be polite. Probably high. Finally, she left.
Later that day, I thought about what had happened. She obviously believed she was meant to be an author. And she was certain everyone else would agree with her. But she had made a critical error: she hadn’t learned how to listen.
Listening, like writing, is an art. You can always tell a writer who’s mastered the art of listening by the way the prose leaps off the page. A writer who knows how to listen is someone who studies the experts – the great writers and the great writing teachers – and learns from them all. She is someone who knows how to get past the sudden stab of feeling like a failure to find wisdom in the criticism of others.
And perhaps most importantly, she is someone who, long before putting a single word on the page, learns how to listen to the world around her. She learns about three-dimensional characters and realistic dialogue from listening to family, friends, strangers in a coffee shop. She learns about the power of silence by being silent herself. She learns about pacing and rhythm and tension and conflict from observing real life circumstances. She is someone who can be simultaneously engaged in a moment and pondering it. She doesn’t apply everything she discovers to her own writing, but she gives it all plenty of room to breathe before she decides what to use and what to discard.
Like the woman at my table, she too holds tight to her manuscript, but unlike her, this is not because she believes hers is a perfect child. The writer who has learned to listen holds tight to her manuscript because it is a mystery; a strong-willed puzzle of questions and answers and possibilities.
When she hands her manuscript to an editor, she gives him the result of good listening.
And then when he speaks, she listens some more.