Writing is just talking on paper.
I don’t remember where I first heard that line, but I have been using it in my writing workshops ever since. I also tell people that I don’t believe there was one single report card of mine–from Kindergarten all the way through Grade 12– that didn’t have the comment “talks too much in class” on it. Invariably, “doesn’t make good use of time” followed. As someone who now makes a living talking and making pictures, there is obvious irony in this. I often wonder if there is a genetic component to being talkative. There is no doubt that I come from loquacious folk and, now, in both of my children’s school conferences, I hear similar comments about their “chattiness.”
I love talking with people. My family knows that it will probably take me twice as long to run any errand because I am likely to strike up a conversation in the process, either with someone I know or even someone I don’t. I enjoy finding out a little something about the people I interact with, like the waitress at a restaurant, the clerk at a store, the teller at the bank because I think that knowing something about people makes life better in so many small but meaningful ways. Recently, my son and I waited three hours to have a book signed by one of our family’s favorite storytellers, David Sedaris. Sedaris is a hilarious, gifted essayist who can make a brilliant story out of any seemingly benign situation he finds himself in. We went to one of his readings and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without him signing our books. But, what could have been an agonizing, frustrating time in a really, really long queue turned out to be strangely pleasant and interesting, in large part because of the funny, engaging woman named Elizabeth who stood behind us and with whom we chatted for our whole time in the line. We shared stories, laughter, life philosophies for three hours and then went our separate ways.
A few weeks ago I joined thousands of people all across the world who are participating in the ‘100 Strangers’ project. This project challenges participants to approach 100 people they don’t know and to ask them to take their portrait. Afterwards, most participants ask the subject a little something about themselves. The objective of the project, as stated on the main web site, is to help improve photojournalistic skills. I, however, am much more attracted to the social aspect of it and the information provided by the subjects after the portrait is taken. It proves to me, over and over, that you cannot possibly know anything about a person by just looking at them. We all have amazing stories. I am only nine strangers into the project and can tell you that, even for someone who easily strikes up a conversation with someone, this puts a whole new twist on it and it is much harder than I would have thought. There are butterflies a plenty when I am about to make the connection and pop the question and I have passed by great photos by totally losing my nerve, though I feel a cool sense of satisfaction after I take a shot and hear some little detail about a stranger’s life.
Some of my favorite radio segments on NPR come from the StoryCorps project. StoryCorps is an oral history project founded by Dave Isay, a radio documentary producer. Isay began StoryCorps in 2003, in Grand Central Terminal in NYC, with a simple booth, two microphones and a recorder. If you have ever heard any of these short segments on the radio, then you know how magnetic a personal story from someone else’s life can be. Examples of the kind of questions that are used to generate these conversations are available on the StoryCorps web site and they are amazing in their simplicity. The slogan of the StoryCorps project is: listening is an act of love. I like that.
I recently discovered a cool product called “Table Topics.” These are clear, plastic boxes filled with square cards. On each card is a question that is designed to generate a conversation. The set that I purchased was their “Family” set and the questions are, as you might expect, appropriate for all ages, but the company offers a great selection of card sets like “Girls Night Out,” “Not Your Mom’s Dinner Party,” and even some designated to a certain decade, as well as a set in Spanish. I think these are great to have on your table, on the kitchen counter, in the staff lunch room or in the classroom and I can see them leading to all sorts of wonderful storytelling between people. I was actually going to use one as the springboard for today’s blog, but then I started thinking about the idea of storytelling as a whole and how it has been something I have loved my entire life.
Incidentally, I have to mention that the question on the random card that I pulled out of the Table Topics box was: “What do children know more about than adults?” I guess I’d have to say that they for sure know the great pleasure and benefit that comes from being chatty and talking too much in class.
TRY THIS WEEK: Strike up a conversation with someone and find out something about them that you did not know.