Years ago I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and found one of the most useful principles from the book was this:
Become genuinely interested in other people.
Carnegie would meet people at a gathering or party and get them talking about their hobbies and areas of expertise. By being genuinely interested in them—by being curious—he met interesting people, learned a lot, and gathered a wealth of material for his books and lectures.
He inserted a story in that chapter that every writer should probably hear.
I once took a course in short-story writing at New York University, and during that course the editor of a leading magazine talked to our class. He said he could pick up any one of the dozens of stories that drifted across his desk every day and after a few paragraphs he could feel whether or not the author liked people. “If the author doesn’t like people,” he said, “people won’t like his or her stories.”
This hard-boiled editor stopped twice in the course of his talk on fiction writing and apologized for preaching a sermon. “I am telling you,” he said, “the same things your preacher would tell you, but remember, you have to be interested in people if you want to be a successful writer of stories.” (68)
You have to be interested in people if you want to be a successful writer of stories.
Maybe you’d like to be interested in people but you’re shy. Maybe you’re an introvert. Maybe you hate to be in the spotlight. That describes a lot of writers.
If that’s you, you may find it hard to be curious about people and ask them questions. But it’s a skill you can practice by learning to ask questions and listening. Once you do, you’ll not only begin to gather material and inspiration—you’ll enjoy a side benefit of getting the focus off yourself.
Once you ask a couple of open-ended questions that get the other person talking, you won’t have to say much more about yourself, which is handy for the shy or introverted person. People will love to tell you about their woodworking hobby, or their recent vacation to Spain, or their daughter’s prize-winning pie at the state fair.
Being curious about people is also an excellent way to understand people who come from a completely different walk of life or have views that are opposite of yours. Respectfully ask curious questions, listening without the intent to argue or jump in with your own stories, and you may learn how someone ended up with a certain religious belief or political stance and gain deeper understanding about something you’d only barely been exposed to.
Novelists can write more complex characters when they understand more about where real people have come from or why they’ve developed an interest in an uncommon topic or activity.
As you meet people and show interest, you don’t want to use them, but you can sort of think of conversations as research. Someone could spark an idea for an essay when she mentions a restaurant that shut down where her mom and dad met in the 1960s. A person at the laundromat might tell a story about his great uncle who served in World War II, and that sparks the idea for a character in your next short story.
Carnegie talks about showing genuine interest in people as a practice for getting to know them through the stories they share when you ask about them. He claims you’ll develop real friendships, get people to like you, and tell better stories because you like people and take a genuine interest in them.
You’ll tell better stories.
You’ll tell better stories because you’ll have lots of them, collecting stories from every person you meet.
And you’ll tell better stories because you’ll likely develop excellent storytelling skills from people simply by listening to stories told.
Learning to ask open-ended questions and to listen closely as the person responds is a skill not only for journalists but for all writers.
Be genuinely interested in other people, ask good questions, and gather stories. If you’re a writer, you can never have too many stories.
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