Introducing Habits and Techniques of Writers: Observation

October 21, 2010 at 9:46 am 3 comments

If anyone can be a writer, if writing is as natural as talking, then what is there to learn in a writing workshop?

It’s a big part of my teaching philosophy that anyone who can talk can write. And I am not alone in this thought: many other wonderful writer/teachers have said this, or have said something very similar: Nancy Slonim Aronie, Brenda Ueland, Julia Cameron spring instantly to mind. I am sure there are others.

None of my students has ever really questioned me on this point (at least so far). But it has occurred to me that a person might wonder, if anyone who can talk can write, then what is there to learn in a writing class?

Especially if, as I also tell my students, and as Nancy Slonim Aronie has put it, “Writing is not about grammar, it is about telling the truth.”

It’s true that no one can teach someone else how to tell their own truth. And even if you could somehow, why would you want to? The discoveries we make along the way of finding our own truths are some of the greatest rewards of writing. I would not steal that pleasure from anyone.

But I thought it might be helpful to some of my students if I were to put together a list of a few things that can be taught about writing, and the writing process. (Apart from grammar, punctuation, style, etc.)

All of which can, of course, be taught. All of which have been taught to most of us (though most of the time, not very well.)

And all of which are beside the point, and belong to a separate body of knowledge that is useful at the very end of the writing process (just before publication); but which can often be disruptive or counterproductive in the beginning.

I think what can be taught about writing and the writing life are a few habits and techniques that writers tend to have.

Some of these habits may seem unbelievably mundane. Others are a little strange. (Some of them might even be considered borderline crazy.)

So I thought it might be helpful for people who are just beginning to think of themselves as writers to know that some of the tendencies (or habits, or techniques) they may have are not only not uncommon among writers.

Some of them are perhaps even essential for those who really want to follow this path.

So I will be blogging on some of these habits and techniques of writers.

Here’s the first one:

Careful observation.

This involves both watching and listening, including the all-important art of eavesdropping. (See what I mean? Right off the bat, “rude” behavior.)

Most writers find life endlessly fascinating. Their own lives, the lives of those around them, the passing parade. The major events and the small telling details that fill, or at least touch, everyone’s life every day.

Carefully observing all of this has lots of positive side effects: for one thing, it is a lot harder to be bored, no matter where you are or what you are doing, if you are interested in all these details of life.

Another advantage writers have over everyone else is that they can always choose to view even really bad life experiences as future grist for the writing mill. You can be going through something pretty unpleasant, and the minute you realize that this is an “interesting life experience” that you may want to write about one day, suddenly things change.

You take a more dispassionate view of what is happening. You begin to feel as if you need a notebook rather than a Kleenex, or a drink. It is as if you can see yourself from the point of view of someone else, and in certain situations that can feel pretty great. All of a sudden instead of living your own bad dream, you are watching a fascinating play. Definitely an improvement!

And you learn. You learn from watching. You learn about others, about yourself, about life.

Then you share what you have learned with others.

So, as William Burroughs said (rather roughly, but getting right to the point), “For God’s sake, keep your eyes open!” And if you add to that doing as Paul Auster has done, developing the habit to “Never to leave the house without a pencil in [your] pocket,” you will be well on your way.

I will be writing about other habits and techniques of writers on an occasional basis.

In the meantime, remember to keep your eyes and ears open, your pencil sharpened, and write on!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature who divides her time between France and the United States.  She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work, About Writing from the Heart, Habits and Techniques of Writers. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mariehelene56  |  October 24, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Great idea for a series of articles Janet. I really enjoyed this post and found it so helpful!! You are such a good writer and teacher! One of the things I really liked about being a staff writer for a newspaper company was that my editors taught me to add details, always more details: colorful, telling, tiny, amusing. It really changed the way I reported a story and really helps me when I write today. I love your point about enjoying life experiences as “stories”. That idea has gotten me through so many things, from the worst of my worst romantic experiences to major surgery on local anesthesias. Thanks again for the great post!!! Mary Ellin

    • 2. Janet Hulstrand  |  October 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

      Thank you so much, Mary Ellin! These words mean an awful lot to me, coming from you!

  • 3. Chelnor Griffin  |  May 27, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Writers must be excellent observers and consciously bring their writing to life in order for the writing to be meaningful and connected to life. Observation which is key in ensuring that one’s writing has depth and truth. Observation is a learnng tool that allows the writer to connect himself or herself and those they are writng about.


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