It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.
We start learning at a very young age which sorts of stories work, and which do not. Who our intended audience should be, and what reaction we’ll likely evoke. Have you ever witnessed a toddler doing something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do? Like saying a bad word, or throwing her food at the dog? And instead of getting reprimands, the toddler is rewarded with laughter–sometimes stifled, sometimes not–so the toddler repeats it. For the laughter. The smiles. Getting away with being naughty.
Once she learns how to speak, she can figure out the lines that’ll get her out of trouble, which ones don’t work on Mom, but will work on Dad. Which tall tales get her detention, which make her Teacher’s Pet. Trial and error, over and again, seeing which stories make new friends giggle, which ones makes them cry, and if she’s lucky, she’ll discern the best time to tell each.
That’s basically what writing is like, except it takes a hell of a lot longer for feedback.
Over the weekend, I visited the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago. The Ernest Hemingway quote at the top of this page was displayed on a screen there and I stood and stared at it a long time. I’d heard many of his quotes before, but not this one. I committed it to memory. An old-school, writerly version of Fake It Until You Make It. I’m not sure why, out of all the inspirational quotes I saw at the museum, that one stabbed at me the most, but it did.
I thought about it all day, wondered if some people really were born that way and never had to fake it.
Later that same afternoon we sat in a pizzeria, listening to conversations going on around us.
Okay, fine, I was eavesdropping. You wanna know where I get my dialogue? I eavesdrop all over the damn place and there’s nothing anyone can do about it (except maybe, you know, you all could talk a bit quieter when you’re in public. Seriously, the only people who give a shit about what you’re saying are those with ulterior motives, who wish to put you in a blog or story).
Anyway, a guy was sitting at a table next to us, by himself. He was maybe in his mid to late twenties. For a long time, he was too boring to pay attention to, so I’m not sure how, exactly, the conversation started up between him and the man sitting a table over. My ears didn’t perk up until I heard him say, “My girl’s in rehab. It’s been real hard, ya know?” and the second man say, “Oh, sorry to hear that, man. That’s rough.”
At this point, my Ulterior Motive Writer’s Ears switched on. (I keep meaning to ask my husband if my face glows when this happens. I feel like something Super-Powery should signal when my ears turn on.) The first guy–we’ll call him Tattoo Steve–said, “Yeah, she was drinking too much wine.” (This is the part of the story where I became dubious. Or in denial. I don’t know, whatever). And the second guy–Gullible Bob–was nodding in sympathy, and Tattoo Steve turned it up a notch. “Yeah, we’ve got a baby on the way, too. I’m just trying to get myself together for when she gets out.” Cue Gullible Bob coming in with more sympathy, words of encouragement, general shit you say to a person you don’t know who is inexplicably baring his soul to you.
Then my husband and I had to order our food or something obnoxious like that, and part of the conversation was lost on me. (There may have been a pint of beer somewhere in there, contributing to my distraction.)
Once our waiter was gone, and we’d held some conversation of our own to make it look like we weren’t trying to listen in on anyone else’s conversation, we tuned back in to Tattoo Steve being offered some of Gullible Bob’s leftover pizza, even though Tattoo Steve had his own pizza. They were fast friends now, chumming it up, Tattoo Steve spinning all sorts of stories that were tugging at everyone’s heart-strings. The pace at which he was leaving bread crumbs of his story was impeccable, it didn’t sound rehearsed at all, not like some sob stories you hear from pan-handlers or people who are accustomed to begging. This wasn’t some regurgitated script.
That’s what I thought until it came time for Tattoo Steve to pay, and he presented his bus card. To which his waiter said, “Well, uh, hey you can’t pay with a bus card.” As if Tattoo Steve didn’t know such a thing. I grinned wide at my husband. It was all a scam, that story-telling little shit was just making it all up (that was what my grin said, for those of you who weren’t there and couldn’t see it).
I was about to kick Hubs under the table and demand we pay for his pizza–the story-telling was entertaining enough to me to be worth it–when, of course, his new buddy Gullible Bob offered.
This guy was excellent. He had perfectly picked his target and waited patiently, trusting in his story to do what it needed to do.
I thought, maybe some people really are born knowing how to tell stories. I mean, sure, you have to learn where commas and periods go (maybe), and figure out style and syntax, and maybe a few more of those other grammar rules over-and-above comma placement (perhaps), but telling stories? Maybe sometimes it can’t be taught in a classroom or workshop or on a YouTube channel. Maybe it can only be conditioned into you by years of throwing food at your dog and seeing who laughs, who screams, and who gives you more food to throw.