Thursday, September 09, 2010

A master's degree in human nature

Somehow or another, I have managed to get on every known telemarketing list for online colleges and work-at-home schemes. I really feel for these folks, who are just trying to make a living themselves, but the answer is no. They want to sell me a master's degree in something besides human nature.

I've done more than a few talks with young writers, and they always ask me, "What can I do to improve my writing skills?"

I'd tell them to live a few more years and get some life experience under their belt, but the nation's young, fed on a continual diet of fast food and 30 second commercials that already seem too long for them, aren't the most patient demographic group. So that's when I dust off Plan B: Get a master's in human nature.

They ask, "How?"

And I say, "Get a job as a reporter at a newspaper."

They don't want to hear that any more than the life-experience deal, but it is true. I cut my teeth in professional writing as a reporter covering everything from a man who got struck by lightning to a highly publicized body in a suitcase.

The crime stuff, that was interesting. Criminals are notoriously dumb (which is the reason they get caught 99% of the time), and it's fairly easy to write a humorous story when the defendant gets caught in the midst of a commercial transaction of weed right across from the sheriff's office (true story).

But it was the features that taught me more about human beings than anything else. I wrote stories on everything you could think of: old houses, old people who lived in new houses, people who rescued dogs, people who collected dolls, people who had alligators in their pools, people who found weird things with metal detectors. I wrote about childhood sweethearts who had grown up and married and had been married for 50 years. If it had a smidge of a story to it and it could fill up column inches, and if I could figure out a photo to go with it, I wrote about it.

It taught me a valuable lesson: every person has at least one story to tell. Beyond that, it taught me the differences in people's speech patterns, in the way they sit and talk and walk, how they see the world. It showed me all the different things that make people unique.

And that can be boiled down to one thing: the element of surprise. I never failed to learn at least one unexpected thing about each person that I interviewed. I might not have used that in the story, but it made me walk away with the knowledge that no one is exactly who he appears to be.

I hope that I bring that richness to my own characters. It's not that I seek to make each one annoyingly cute or quirky. I just hope to make them rife with the contradictions that make them, well, human.


Jayne said...

Back when I was a teen I was advised that if I liked writing that I should try to get a job on the local newspaper. Huh, I thought back then. What - listen to practical sensible advice? Oh no, not me. Cue several years of blundering until I did get a job at a local newspaper, and did 'pay my dues' for many years covering stories almost as varied as yours. :) This sort of experience was invaluable, and I wish wish wish I could go back and tell my younger self not to think I knew it all, and to listen. I may have achieved what I want to achieve a little faster.

Matthew Rush said...

I got some feedback from an agent the other day about my WIP (yes the one you've read) and it was a little depressing.

The gist was basically: there is no time for description, your reader will get bored, just get to the action. It is a YA novel so I see her point but it's a little sad to me.

Is that all we have time for in our right-this-instant culture? Does no one read anymore just for the sake of the writing? The beauty of language? Must some character die or have sex or break down in tears because of the cruelty of life on every page?

Sorry Cynthia, I'm just feeling sorry for myself.

Great post though, great point too.

Tawna Fenske said...

Totally with you on this! I started out as a reporter as well, and though I don't miss the lousy pay and long hours, I do miss the opportunity to interact with such a wide variety of people (and grill them about their lives while I was at it).


Medeia Sharif said...

People are impatient these days. While many young writers are getting published, most need to master the craft before moving on. But I think they'll learn that whether through practice or becoming journalists or going about it some other way. Of course they need to have that desire to learn and grow, rather than seeking the instant gratification route.

Lickety Splitter said...

Great advise ... a master's degree in human nature. I love getting to know people and discovering what makes them tick. I need to hone my observation and listening skills.

Linda G. said...

Good advice, Cynthia. Only, what's this thing called a "newspaper"? *wry grin*

Sadly they seem to be going the way of the Dodo. :(

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love the idea of using your real life to "fill up" your characters, or flesh them out perhaps. I need to ponder on that a bit ... :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

p.s. reporters are some of the most interesting people I know. Also lawyers. Go figure.

paul said...

Its very difficult to understand human nature......Life Experience Degree