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Accepting the quiet, by Wendy Hoke

December 29, 2007 | Books,Guest blogger,Guest post,Journalism

What an honor and a thrill to be asked to guest blog here at Deep Muck Big Rake. I’m a freelance journalist who also writes at Creative Ink and I’m happy to count Becky among my regular readers. I’ve not written there lately because I’m attempting a vacation.

Problem is, I’m a needy writer and so when things get quiet, I get nervous. Makes no sense, you see, because I’m working on several ongoing projects and have another story due next Friday and got an e-mail this morning about doing some editing on another book project. So I should really just learn to accept and enjoy the quiet.

This may not be true for every writer, but I need to unplug from time to time to recharge the creative batteries. For inspiration, I’ve turned this week to “The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & Encounters.” Last March, I had the privilege of meeting him at a storytelling workshop in Anniston, Ala.

With the exception of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” I hadn’t really read any of his work. I mean, I was familiar with all the titles, “The Kingdom and the Power,” “Honor Thy Father,” and his notable profiles of boxers and baseball players. But I hadn’t really read his work.

I still believe that the Frank Sinatra/Esquire piece has tremendous resonance and stands as a model for reporting. Not all of his pieces in this book struck me the same way. However, the piece about Floyd Patterson (“The Loser”) was heartrending in its simplicity.

As a nonfiction writer, I find his reporting astounding, asking myself what questions he asked to get certain information, or wondering where he was standing in a room when he observed certain things, or what he’s looking for when he scans a room or a place and what particular details of a person fill his notebooks.

He reveals some of his trade secrets in a piece called, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” and some of the details written here about being a boy in his mother’s dress shop in New Jersey, he shared with journalists in Anniston last March.

“The shop was a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner and well-timed questions of my mother; and as a boy not much taller than the counters behind which I used to pause and eavesdrop. I learned much that would be useful to me years later when I began interviewing people for articles and books.

“I learned to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments (as the listening skills of my patient mother taught me) people often are very revealing—what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them. Their pauses, their evasions, their sudden shifts in subject matter are likely indicators of what embarrasses them, or irritates them, or what they regard as too private or imprudent to be disclosed to another person at that particular time. However, I also overheard many people discussing candidly with my mother what they had earlier avoided—a reaction that I think had less to do with her inquiring nature or sensitively posed questions than with their gradual acceptance of her as a trustworthy individual in whom they could confide. My mother’s best customers were women less in need of new dresses than the need to communicate.”

Too often, Talese is credited with founding, “The New Journalism,” so labeled by Tom Wolfe. But Talese steadfastly rejects such labels, maintaining now—and then–that what he was doing didn’t involved any new style. It was simply storytelling as we all know it (using scenes, dialogue, description, etc.) in a nonfiction format.

What interests me most about Talese, and frankly when I find his work most moving, is not those celebrated profiles of notable personalities, but his portraits of the ordinary people. His “unnoticed things” of New York City, his decision to talk about the Selma riots with white members of a local country club, his decision to write about losers more often than winners.

I turned to Talese for quiet inspiration this week and did not fail to deliver.

Posted by Wendy @ 12:37 pm  

2 Responses to “Accepting the quiet, by Wendy Hoke”

  1. Kristine Says:

    Thanks for the post. I feel listening is something I’ve more and more come to appreciate the value of, and become much better at, since I started blogging. And ‘unplugging to recharge those creative batteries from time to time’ is something I at least couldn’t do without as a writer. In fact I think it makes you a better writer: if you’re in the deadline chasing game it’s far too easy to become one-track-minded, to allow your focus to become too narrow…

  2. Wendy Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Kristine. I quiet agree with you on how the deadline game can lead to tunnel vision.

    Happy New Year!

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