The Ear of a Writer...



Through the storm of an artist in free-fall, a kernel of genius can still pop.

The other night, I was searching for photos to accompany a book trailer I’m about to make, and I came upon an interview Johnny Carson did on the Tonight Show (well before Leno, kiddies!), one Truman had done a little past the 10th anniversary of the execution of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the two killers of the Kansas Clutter family, the murders made famous in Truman’s iconic non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood”.

The man looked puffy, was overweight and very aged for his 50 years(maybe the goings-on at Studio 54 will do that to a person)…and seemed rather uncomfortable being on stage with Johnny, sporting sun glasses, to protect his eyes, or to hide? The reason was not made clear.

I think Johnny sensed Truman’s anxiety so he tried to offer initial niceties and ask uber-neutral questions…I felt for Johnny, and for Truman. The allure of fame, and the torture of fame. People dream of the former, never think of the latter.

But the key in this interview was his sobriety. Truman seemed on the ball that night and at his literary best.

Carson offered that Truman was so easy to read, and by that he meant his prose was fluid-easy to digest, his message delivery so uncomplicated yet so very acute, Truman said it was because he wrote with his ear.

He gestured to the back of his head saying he absorbed the world around him through what he heard, never mentioning his eyes and what he saw.

Now, that may not be earth-shattering to many, but it was to me, for nowadays, I find a world stuffed to the rafters with talkers…true listeners as rare as a Bigfoot call…and then I thought maybe that’s why I find so many fiction books unreadable…the one dimensional take on a tale worthy of all three.
If the writer physically STOPS and LISTENS to the world around him, can he not glean far more on an event, a person, a moment in time, than mere eyes will allow?

We writers, if we adhere to Truman’s process, will receive the following as gifts;
  • Spoken words, conversations, the back and forth and often too-subtle-to-see interplay between human beings
  • Earthly sounds as per weather, ground, subject and object movement; i.e. Truman’s famous “scuttling tumbleweed” springs to mind
  • Ambient noise as per vehicles, instruments, object, tools, plants and animals
  • And maybe the best of all — tone and texture of sounds— to denote atmosphere, attitude that can then be gently folded into a tale
In this fast-paced world many of us do not stop our minds nor our bodies long enough to take in not just the surface of a thing or a person or a place or an event, but the sub and superstructure of said, the whole and the three-dimensional existence of a thing BEFORE we put pen to paper.

Truman then said to Johnny he took what he heard and wrote it how he heard it, so as to conceivably cover all of the above in its most distilled/pure form. That direct delivery allowed for his complex tales to be told, plainly, simply, for All to easily digest and appreciate, in effect, cleaving away the rough slices of ore to create a glittering precious gem.

As an aside, the emotional being in me just wanted to climb through the screen and slap him silly for wasting away his life, as I believe there was so much more we writers could have learned from that slightly strange and diminutive man.

I imagine his habit of listening was forced upon him in social circles in his earlier days, for to be no one special, physically small and very introverted, what could you do but sit and listen to the bigger, bolder, more social butterflies in your sphere?

But what Truman said in that video gave me pause, and a much needed slap in the face, to remind me to not just watch, but to listen — deeper, longer and more acutely — to get the whole picture around me and not merely a part.

For if writers don’t digest All, do we even have a right to distill any?

Truman, on this rare occasion, was talking in earnest, as if he were offering a warning to other literary artists following in his wake, that to ignore the ear is to miss the true heartbeat of a thing.
Maybe he saw the future and this was his message from an all-too-early grave.

Or maybe I just imagined he was speaking only to me, and I had better heed his words, or fail in my own work.

Henceforth, I shall remember his demeanour on that particular night and engrave his words upon my brain and allow them to whisper in my ear every time pen strikes paper with me.

We wordsmiths have a responsibility. Are we truly meeting the bar?

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