Writing Right with Dmitri: Verbal Practice, Solo Version
Did you hear the one about the reporter who asked Albert Einstein what his hobby was? He said, 'I think.'
Now, before anybody yells, 'How pretentious, even for a theoretical physicist,' I'd like to add that Einstein went on to explain. He said that when he wasn't using his brain for anything else, he liked to sit and mull over in his mind proofs of things he already knew. For practice. That is astoundingly good advice, so I want to suggest a similar exercise for everyone who reads this.
Yes, everyone. Whether you think of yourself as a 'writer' or not. And whether you already think you know everything you need to know or not. If it was good enough for Einstein. . .
How many people do you know who are really good at telling an anecdote? At giving directions or instructions? At relaying the news they heard on the radio five minutes ago? Are you tired of hearing muddled accounts, and having to sort the information out yourself? This is largely because people don't know how to tell a story.
Now stop and think: How good are you at relaying this information, not to your satisfaction, but to the listener's? Be honest, now. How much confusion have you sown with your account of what your brother-in-law's aunt said to the postman yesterday? How many follow-up questions have you gotten when you tried to show a pedestrian how to get to the local ice cream parlour?
Tangled storytelling and muddled directions can get us down. But the good news is: we can fix this. These are skills we can practice. And we don't need an audience.
You can practice storytelling in your free time. Somebody just said, 'What free time? I'm always busy.' Pah. I'm not talking about an hour. I'm talking about the time it takes you to walk the dog.
'I don't have a dog.' 'My wife walks the dog.' 'Are you telling me to buy a dog?' You either walk the dog, or clean out the catbox, or walk to the bus stop, or go to the corner for a packet of crisps, or. . . And if you don't move even that much every couple of days, you don't need a writing coach, you need a doctor, and probably soon. Stop interrupting. Eventually, you will run out of excuses. You can do this practice.
Get into the habit of talking to yourself. No, not aloud. You get funny looks that way. In your head, silly. Think about a story you've read or heard or seen on television recently – the latest episode of your favourite soap opera will do nicely, or the breaking news of the day. Retell the story to yourself, or pretend to be telling it to someone else. Figure out how to make it concise, but interesting. Pay attention to:
- The order in which you need to tell the events. What does the hearer need to know first?
- What details are important? Which are unimportant?
- How could you make the story punchier, more effective?
- Is there a particular point you'd want to make about this story if you were telling it to a particular person? Would you tell it differently to your friend the cop, or to the elderly lady across the street, or to your eleven-year-old nephew?
By practicing the art of storytelling to yourself, you hone your skills at narrative. With a little practice, you can even begin to work out refinements in your technique.
Can you do this exercise on paper? Sure you can. Just not while walking the dog. They tend to pull on the leash a bit if you try to write. Just scribble it out, or type it, during a tea break. That will work. Like most kinds of exercise, you just have to keep it up until you overcome the reluctance by remembering how much better you feel afterwards. Storytelling muscles need to be exercised, too. And you don't even have to annoy your loved ones in order to practice.
When I was a kid, people wondered why it never seemed to bother me to walk to and from school alone, or to go off for a ramble by myself. Freed from the need to keep up a conversation, I was at liberty to practice storytelling in my head. Build these think-breaks into your day. I suspect you'll find it refreshing, and good for the muscle tone of your prose.