Monday, November 05, 2007

Writing and Talking

Lana and I had dinner at a local café the other evening and the owner, a very nice and friendly fellow, at one point asked us what we did. I said I taught at Xavier University and got the inevitable question: “What do you teach?” “Psychology” I replied, and got the inevitable comment about how I could probably do a whole case study on him. I tried to explain that I was an experimental/research psychologist and not particularly interested in the clinical side of psychology, to which I got the inevitable comment indicating that he had no idea what that meant but I could surely do a case study on him. I just went along from there because it wasn’t worth the effort to try and explain again.

Lana then mentioned that I was also a writer and we got on that topic for a bit. The fellow made a comment about how people think writing is hard but it’s really very easy. He pointed out that people talk all the time and all they have to do to write is put those words down on paper. I didn’t correct him because I know from experience that in such situations people only want corroboration of their viewpoints and they won’t really listen to a counter argument anyway.

The truth is, though, that writing is not nearly as easy as holding a conversation with your friends, even if both forms of communication use words. Saying so is like saying that a Pee Wee football team could play just fine against the New England Patriots because they both use footballs. Here are just some of the ways writing is harder than talking.

1. One must think much more carefully when writing than when talking because there is no immediate feedback on your success, or lack thereof, in communicating your points. If you screw up while talking the other person will let you know, but the person reading your work may not even be in the same country as you are. They can’t ask you a question if they don’t understand your point or if they get lost in your narrative.

2. There is no reactive communication in writing. You can’t let the other person’s reactions to your words dictate or affect what you are going to say. They haven’t seen ‘em yet. You are on your own in constructing your writing.

3. A large part of a spoken conversation depends on emotional cues. There are no emotional cues in writing, although things like ;) and LOL’s and punctuation are a lame attempt at adding such information. It doesn’t work very well. This is why jokes are generally much funnier when told in person than when on the printed page, and why people sometimes take comments much more seriously in written form than was intended by the writer.


Lana Gramlich said...

The guy said that writing was as easy as talking & that's true--putting words on paper (or screen) IS easy. Making it cohesive & interesting, however, is an entirely different matter. Besides, he was clearly coming from a pseudo-professional talker standpoint (as evidenced by our repeatedly-interrupted dinner. <:\ )

Michelle's Spell said...

What a dinner that must have been! I always tell people I'm a writer (power of the Word as the religious folk say), but I dread the inevitable follow-up, usually something about how they write poems/screenplays/church letters or how they have a really great idea for a book, but no time to write. And in addition to all of your points, that's the main difference between talking and writing. Talking is easy, but making time for actual writing is the most difficult part of the whole thing for me.

SQT said...

OMG! That guy sounds like a blow hard.

I remember a conversation I had that was similar to that years ago. I was teaching at the time and this woman, who knew nothing about teaching, went on to tell me how well compensated teachers were. (?)

Apparently she'd heard grossly inflated income numbers from some other people who claimed to be in the teaching profession. But the numbers were so out of whack as to be ridiculous. Her idea of a starting salary was about $20k a year higher than reality. When I tried to tell her that she just blew me off like I didn't know what I was talking about. I could literally quote the pay-scale but because it wasn't what she wanted to hear, I had no credibility.

That was probably the most maddening conversation I have ever had.

Steve Malley said...

Ah, the what-do-you-do portion of the evening!

If I say, "I'm an..."

'Artist': "I can't even draw a stick figure, but my cousin/brother/aunt Louise can draw like anything."

'Cartoonist': "How do you come up with jokes? No jokes, what the hell's wrong with you?"

'Tattooist': "I always wanted a tattoo..."

or, "I don't know how people can get those. They're just so awful!"

'Piercer': "Does look infected?"

'Writer': "Boy, that Stephen King/Jk Rowling sure makes a lot of money. How about you? Are you rich?"

or, "I thought I'd write a novel once. I've got the first 50 pages, but..."

or (my own personal favorite), "Wow, I've got a lot of great ideas. How bout I tell em to you, and you write them down?"


I'm often tempted to follow Travis McGee's lead and claim to be a marine hardware fittings salesman....

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, you remember this happened last time we went as well. They're almost too friendly.

Michelle, yes, making the time is something I should have mentioned. Maybe in a follow up post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sqt, there was definetely some hot wind to be felt. So few people actually listen.

Steve, I should have remembered that Travis McGee tactic. Although for a while in graduate school I would tell people I was a physiologist instead of a psychologist to forestall the inevitable, since I was training in "physiological psychology". Unfortunately, most people didn't know what a physiologist was and assumed I meant psychologist. And then the inevitable questions began.

steve on the slow train said...

Charles--I think every job or craft looks easy from the outside. Your earlier posts about public speaking remind us that it's different from just talking.

There may be some people for whom writing is easy--I know I'm not one of them.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

You are too nice, I really don't like talking too much to strangers when I'm out. Too anti- social. My hubby on the other hand is a social butterfly and talks to everyone!!!

Bad writing is really easy. It's the good writing that is so hard to do!

Danette Haworth said...

Good post, Charles, and so true.

Professional tennis looks easy to me, but I never make the mistake of thinking it really is. I've held a racket before and I've seen the truth bounce right out of the court.

Chris Eldin said...

Miss Snark always advised to never tell people you're a writer. She had a long list of reasons.
People who don't read might think writing is easy. Better-educated people know better.

Miss Snark never had anything to say about pyschology, etc. Sorry, you're on your own! :-)

Chris Eldin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
steve on the slow train said...

Re Steve Malley's comment Travis McGee's line: I remember someome who always said he was a proctologist. That ended the conversation right away.

Lana Gramlich said...

I was blown away when they asked if we were Catholics (like they were.) Is there really a polite way to say "I'm an anti-theist?" I suppose it would've cut the conversation short, at any rate. ;)

Angie said...

What people don't get is that they're nto even comparing the same level of performance. Someone who enjoys talking a lot thinks writing is easy, but professional writing is more like giving a formal speech to a critical audience which expects to be informed and entertained, rather than just BSing about whatever pops into your head on a casual basis to a couple of strangers. Expectations are incredibly low when you're just chatting.

More accurate would be to say that someone who has an easy time chatting would probably be good at banging out a Christmas letter to family and friends, since those things are chatty and informal and much closer to casual conversation than a published story would be.

And the degree to which even the habitual motor-mouth pecks out an awkward, boring Christmas letter reflects the technical aspects you mentioned, and the fact that very few people care about complete sentences or subject-verb agreement in casual conversation, but they do rather stick out in writing, where you can take a moment to look at each sentence as a whole.

But of course, people who don't actually write don't see any of this. [wry smile]


the walking man said...

Charles just tell them you're a poet. That usually gets them to lose interest fairly rapidly

SzélsőFa said...

Oh, yes, those outsiders...
On another note, everyone's an someone else's field.

And I second that that dinner must have been a nightmare.:(

Bernita said...

Obviously the fellow just wanted to spout.
I hope the food was good.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, I think you're right in most cases. And maybe I'll start introducing myself as a proctologist. Someone would probably want me to look at their ass, though.

Ello, Lana and I really don't like to "visit" with folks either when we go out. We're usually into our own conversation very much. IN this case there was no escape.

Danette, good point.

Church lady, I often wince when I do tell them that, but then again I feel like I need to promote myself.

Lana, yes, quite strange.

Angie, that's a very good point and I was thinking about posting on that. But I think even public professional speaking is easier than professional writing, although there is initially more anxiety with the speaking.

Szelsofa, true on the "outsider" comment. The dinner wasn't so much of a nightmare as it was a bit frustrating at points. They were trying to be nice.

Bernita, the food was pretty good. But not outstanding.

Walking man, but don't you get, "I wrote a poem in high school once?"

the walking man said...

Charles, never because unless the person is actively writing poetry they think you're just someone who is roses are red violets are blue...etc.

But in my world if someone is interested and actively writing I will talk with them and if it is an interruption of what I am doing at the moment I will give them an e-mail address and let them know I would be happy to critique anything they send and That usually allows them a way out of the conversation, amature writers especially of poetry while it may be very good still think it to personal to share.

By the by I have yet to get one who really wanted a critique. People don't like it when I explain the rules to them.

1) you have to write it

2) you have to present it in public

3) your audience is the only one who can judge your writing

4) you're not a poet until you have been in front of a live audience

From my experience most people who write do not write to entertain a public so I simply brush them off with you keep a journal and that's nice; now if you don't mind I was doing something here.

Like trying to eat not analyze you or find a new blog subject.

JR's Thumbprints said...

As soon as someone finds out your a writer, they tell you their story -- as if what they speak will fall onto the page and they'll get credit. If not that, they're a writer themselves, and dismiss whatever you've worked on. As a former student of Michelle's, I could count on one hand the "true" writers in her class. The amazing thing is: some of them hadn't yet realized their potential.

Heather said...

see, this is why I don't talk to people.....

Stacia said...

What Lana said. I can talk for hours, doesn't mean anyone else wants to hear it. Plus, when I talk I only have myself to characterize, or not. In writing you have to create several characters, dozens even, and they all have to be coherent, separate people with their own quirks and personalities and opinions.

I think if you think writing is easy, you're probably not working hard enough at it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, thanks for the explication on your comment.

JR, I guess that's the curse of having an interesting job, or at least one that's interesting to other folks.

H.E., that's pretty much the best policy.

December/Stacia, even on a physical level, talking is easier.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent points/observations.

One thing that comes off better in writing than it was when heard in person was The Gettysburg Address.

As far as emotive context, I wonder how much the internet is changing all forms of communication, writing and conversation.

Lana Gramlich said...

FYI, I've e-mailed a nomination for that restaurant to "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares." I doubt they operate that way, but it certainly can't hurt! ;)