|Image Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun and Aunt Anne's Hand Rolled Pretzels|
Like most full-time writers, I haven't always earned a living from my craft. I had a string of "day jobs" ranging from monotonous and low paying to exciting and lucrative. I've been a house painter, groundskeeper, antiques dealer, street performer, youth counselor, business executive, short order cook and more. All that, except being a street performer, may seem irrelevant to Mr. Boardwalk, my novel about a boy juggler in Atlantic City. Actually, though, I learned something valuable about writing from every job I ever had.
With that in mind, here are the top three lessons I learned about writing from my day jobs:
1. Use words sparingly. I am a recovering mime. If you're a young person, please understand that back in the 1970s, for about twenty minutes, mime was popular in America. As a trained mime who performed on street corners, at theaters and in schools, I apply today what I learned 30+ years ago in mime school: the value of silence and the economy of words. "Less is more" is key whether you are communicating with words or without.
Le Centre du Silence in Boulder, Colorado, I had to choose one day a week to "fast from words." I happened to meet the poet Allen Ginsberg on one of my "Silent Days." He was doing a book signing at the Boulder Bookstore. I handed him my copy of Howl, but I didn't speak. "What kind of idiot is this?" you might suppose he thought, but in fact he was impressed by my silence. When we bumped into each other a few times over the next year or two, he remembered me. Nothing I could have said would have made an impression on the man. It was what I didn't say that made me memorable.
2. Probe for details. As a market researcher, I learned how to conduct interviews that began like this: "This is Mr. Greenstein calling from Chilton Research Services in Radnor, Pennsylvania. We're speaking with a cross section of homeowners across the country about roofing services."
Sounds pretty dull, right? But after the scripted parts, I got a chance to probe, asking people to tell me more about their thoughts or give me examples. That turned out to be important training. Knowing how to probe deep down for information is essential for my work as a fiction writer. If you are creating a character, you had better be able to answer plenty of questions about him or her. You'd better know more about a character’s motivations than you reveal in the story. I don't know any other way to create a character than to ask a lot of questions, probing for hidden truths.
3. Know your characters. For several years in the 1990s, I owned and operated a career counseling and résumé writing service in Philadelphia. Résumé writing further reinforced the importance of knowing each and every character—major or minor—inside out, so that their actions make sense in the universe that is the novel, story or play. As a fiction writer, you should be able to construct each of your characters’ résumés—employment, education, interests and professional associations—regardless of whether their job histories are mentioned in the story.
Some people say that good writing can't be taught. Maybe, but I know from my own experiences that it can be learned.
ONECHILD BORN: THE MUSIC OF LAURA NYRO, co-written with performer Kate Ferber, travels to multiple venues in New York City and elsewhere. MR. BOARDWALK is his first novel.