"Lend Them Your Ears" (excerpts)
"I'm all for finding story or book substance in your own daily routine...The more normal,
average people you have the chance to observe in normal, average, commonplace situations,
the wider your opportunity...
...Providence is really most kind to [writers]. What else is it, but a dispensation of Providence,
that the mass population doesn't want to write, but does want to talk? It hungers and thirsts to
talk with a desperation that is pathetic, terrifying or pathological, as you view it, but
altogether to your advantage if your business is to put character on paper....
"There is nothing you can lend your fellow man that will pay you larger dividends, than
your ears. To be sure, the habit will cost you time, and time is precious, but I do not belong
to the school
that believes the best things in life are free....
"But, and this is important to remember, you need not have a speaking acquaintance with individuals
in order to profit by their speech. Some of the most illuminating conversation you'll ever
hear will be on the bus, in a cafeteria, in the beauty shop....
"A day or so ago I was walking down Madison Avenue and I heard a man's voice behind me say,
'You know Dick -- he can be the sweetest guy in the world, but he has never been on the level
"I don't know Dick, I shall never know Dick, but I have a thumb-nail sketch of his character
for use in a novel some day. No, I shall not write that scrap of conversation in my notebook --
I have no notebook....I have found that listening with real, not perfunctory, interest to the talk
of others, trying to get their point of view, noting their mannerisms, etc., fixes the highlights
of their personalities in my mind. When I go to work on a novel, I have a mental notebook on
which to draw. For me the material is more familiar than it would be had I made written notes and put
"That, in essence, is all my text. Wherever you are, whatever you have to do, take time to
listen. If you work during the day and write at night, as I do, you're probably fortunate. I
know it sounds thrilling to read that So-and-So, after an acceptance or two, has resigned his
job 'to devote his whole time to writing.' But it seems to me the question is, will he have
anything to write? On the surface it is the perfect set-up, but I feel more secure when the world
is too much with me...."
The Writer, May 1942
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