Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Polite Writer - Joan Lennon

                                                                        Artwork by Melva Medina
                                                            found on the blog The Education Labyrinth

In the wake of a conversation about, well, just about everything, a son flagged up an article to me called "How to be Polite".  It was excellent and funny and true.  As I read, I thought "Yes!  This is such good advice!" and then also "Yes!  Politeness is the writer's friend!"

Listen, if you will, to this -

My ability to go to a party and speak to anyone about anything, to natter and ask questions, to turn the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker, meant that I was gathering huge amounts of information about other people.

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. 

And you lose a chance.  As a person and as a writer.

The next time you're asked where you get your ideas, try answering, "By being polite."  

P.S.  Please don't jump on me because you think I'm implying politeness is nothing more than a cynical tool for doing your job.  I'm not.  And really, I'd much rather hear about you ...

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.



Heather Dyer said...

Ha! What good advice. Thanks.

Penny Dolan said...

Certainly something to try, and a way of dealing with parties when you are rather shy. Also good for putting off answering the "what do you?2 question when you're asked. ps. If the questioner then asks "Is it hard?" they may well have read this ABBA post.

catdownunder said...

A writer could end up with some very interesting material that way!

Susan Price said...

But Joan, you are charm itself! - You don't need such tricks. (You should have heard her chatting up the Scots Rail information officer at Waverley when lightening had frazzled all the signals in Fife, and no trains were crossing the forth...)

Conversations with me go:
Other Person: What do you do?

Me: I work with a word processor. (Total interest fail on their side.) What do you do?

There follows lots of interesting stuff about their job - and Joan's right. You blag some fascinating detail this way.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Joan.
People can be fascinating when they start to tell you about their job or their life, especially if they have a sympathetic listener. But it does help if you are naturally curious and interested in other people, as many writers are anyway.
An excellent source of characters and ideas.